Lord Sutherland appeals to Stirling University not to axe religious studies

By staff writers
August 27, 2015

One of Britain's most senior educationists and public servants has asked the Principal of the University of Stirling to maintain its globally-recognised religious studies programme, following redundancy notices to staff and threats to courses.

Baron Sutherland of Houndwood is one of the most important philosophers of religion in the western world. He established the Religious Studies department at Stirling in the early 1970s, going on to become Vice Chancellor of King's College in the University of London, and then HM Chief Inspector of Schools in England.

In a letter made public with his agreement, Lord Sutherland writes: "When Scotland's new University was set up in 1967, the Academic Planning Committee deliberately placed in the curriculum a provision for Religious Studies which was to be different from the Church-related Faculties of Divinity in the four ancient Universities [in Scotland].

"This recognised the importance of understanding the place of religion in secular contexts in our national and international life. (For example, one very able student who took some of these courses became the leading expert in the inter-action of religion and politics in Irish and UK life.)

"It was once briefly thought that the world is advancing on a rising tide of secularity. However much some may have wished this, fifty years later no sensible person would argue that our world today is immune from multiple religious influences.

"All the more reason to commend the insight of the original Academic Plan of the University of Stirling. Modern life requires advanced study about and education in the nature of religion and its place in society, based in our leading academic centres.

"It seems strange then, that this is the moment chosen by the University of Stirling to back-pedal the Academic awareness of fifty years ago and seek a massive reduction in the provision in these areas within the University. Why?"

The letter from Lord Sutherland also poses specific questions to the University about its procedures and decision-making.

Hundreds of senior academics and and public figures across the world have expressed alarm at the threat to the Stirling University religion department. A petition on the 38 Degrees website has attracted well over 1,000 signatures in a matter of hours.

No named spokesperson from the University has responded publicly to questions to date, but the Communications Department is issuing a routine response claiming that the institution "is currently exploring options for religious studies with a view to future sustainability of the subject."

However, the four departmental staff have already been issued with redundancy notices.

Without qualified and experienced teachers it is unclear how the department can be sustainable, and how obligations to existing students, which the University says it will meet, can be fulfilled, an observer close to the situation told Ekklesia.

In addition, there is no information about whether courses on offer for years three and four will continue or not. A groundbreaking religion and politics programme that was being planned for a possible 2016 start remains among those currently threatened. Neither is it yet clear what will happen with existing PhD students.

The Universities and Colleges Union has confirmed that it remains extremely concerned about the situation.

A UCU spokesperson told Ekklesia today that, contrary to suggestions that this is not the case, "there is a threat of redundancy against staff in the religion department."

She continued: "The union is concerned that appropriate governance processes are not being followed, and that where significant changes are made to courses or subject areas there needs to be due consultation with staff, academic council and reporting to court.

"The union is also concerned at the manner in which these cuts are being dealt with, and fears it may be replicated in other areas."

Lord Sutherland's considered intervention, as a senior public servant, has been welcomed by supporters of the embattled religion department.

In addition to his past work at Stirling, he was appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh through to 2002. He was Provost of Gresham College between 2002 and 2008. In 1992 he was elected to the British Academy, and in 1995 became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, going on to be President in the same year that he was knighted.

* The full letter from Lord Sutherland and other concerned academics can be read on the website of the Critical Religion Association, an independent scholarly network, here: http://criticalreligion.org/events/august-2015-religion-at-stirling-unde...

* The 38 Degrees petition to maintain the department and its staff can be viewed, shared and signed here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/keep-religion-programme-at-stirli...

Also on Ekklesia

* University of Stirling to close pioneering religion department: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22005

* Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22008

* Religion, higher education and critical thinking: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22009

* Response but no clarity on Stirling University religion department: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22012

* Petition launched to save religion department at Stirling University: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22018

Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.

[Ekk/3]

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