Stirling University students dissatisfied over future of religion department

By Simon Barrow
September 24, 2015

Despite public assurances, the threat of redundancy against religion scholars at the University of Stirling has not been removed, and nor has any commitment been made to rescind the threat to wind down a globally-recognised department examining the role of religion in an independent, critical way.

Support for the retention of the religion department at Stirling – established on the basis of pioneering work by the likes of leading educationist Lord Stewart Sutherland – has come from leading academics, institutions, public figures – and students.

Since we broke the story last month (August 2015), we have received a number of communications from students, who are not reassured by promises that they will be able to complete their courses – which still begs questions about the long-term future of the religion department – and who are concerned about the lack of transparency, consultation and clarity in the way the issues are being handled. They have all asked us to protect their anonymity.

One student, who we will call Victoria, wrote this week of her own deep disquiet:

“With the beginning of the new semester, many students still find themselves in a purgatorial anxiety regarding the quality and value of their joint degree in Religious Studies at The University of Stirling. The lack of communication between the university and students, and the imposed silence of teaching personnel, has led to obscurity regarding the fate of Stirling’s Religion Programme and its faculty.

“In an attempt to clarify any misinformation, a meeting was organized between students and the Head of the School of Arts and Humanities [Professor Richard Oram] to whom we could voice our concerns. However, many in attendance, including myself, felt nothing much had been clarified as despite being reassured that our degrees would not be in jeopardy, the university did not quash the threat of redundancy that our lecturers face.

“This raises concern regarding the quality of our taught degree and is a particularly pertinent threat given that religion at Stirling is the only religious course offered in Scotland not limited to theology. Furthermore, in an effort to make students more 'marketable', and additionally make interdisciplinary arts and humanities modules more appealing to science students, there is suggestion of gradually eradicating REL course codes in favour of simply labelling them as 'arts'.

“Religion modules, therefore, it seems, will be integrated into other disciplines and become diluted, in addition to no longer existing as a distinct course. My question is this: how does this make current and future students more ‘marketable’ if prospective employers look at a degree which is seemingly not valued by the host university? Additionally, should the university not put more effort into promoting its highly interdisciplinary religious course, instead of what seems to be effectively demoting it, if not gradually erasing it, if the motive is to heighten its appeal across all academic divisions?

“Moreover, the corporate tone of the meeting and the way in which our questions were evaded and deflected, again, did nothing to quell the uneasy feeling that students are statistical and our highly valued teaching staff is expendable. Whilst of course this may be considered an objective ‘truth’, it reinforced a fear that financial factors would consequently trump the educational needs and concerns of students and the academic contributions of its staff.

“Again students felt just as voiceless and powerless as they had done when the news broke late August without any notification from the university, itself. Communication within the university is still unsatisfactory and the student body still fears for the future of the Religion Department. I would encourage all who to sign UCU’s petition to salvage our Religion Course and ensure the employment of our teaching staff as the threat of redundancy still poses as an immediate threat.”

Ekklesia has received a number of similar comments from other students.

Also from Ekklesia:

* Union negotiates, confirming continued threat at Stirling: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22029

* 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.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.