Analysis: Diarmaid MacCulloch on the Theology & Religious Studies decline

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, reflects on a British Academy report that theology and religious studies risk disappearing from universities ‘just at the time when we need them most’.  In an increasingly adversarial culture, graduates have an unrivalled understanding of humanity in its glorious untidy complexity.  

A recent report from the British Academy makes gloomy reading for those teaching theology and religious studies in higher education.  Student numbers in these disciplines have fallen by a third since 2012 – 6,500 fewer students on theology and religious studies degree courses in 2017-18 than six years before – and the decline has led to the closure or reduction in size of several theology departments in the UK.

There are many reasons for this.  One factor must be the trebling of university tuition fees in 2012.  Prospective students now face an enormous financial burden from tuition fees and living costs, greatly affecting the decisions they make, not only about what to study, but whether to study at all.  That is of course generally true for undergraduates, but hardest hit will be those wishing to return to education later in life or to study part-time: a significant proportion of students in theology and religious studies, including those entering some variety of professional ministry.

More generally puzzling is the disconnect between a general rise in enrolments in sixth-form courses in religion and philosophy and what happens next.  That suggests that efforts need to be redoubled to link university outreach with schools, in particular to persuade careers advisors that this is a good undergraduate option for students.  Various rather technical factors come into play, for instance about the number of AS-levels taken in year 12, and recommendations (now happily modified) from the ‘Russell Group’ of leading universities, encouraging schools to steer students towards ‘facilitating subjects’ that did not include religious studies.  The general message to be drawn is that religious studies are vulnerable to technical details because this has been regarded as a ‘marginal’ subject, rather like, for instance, music.  Not enough bang for the bucks.

How short-sighted that is – an example of bean-counters knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Theology and religious studies risk disappearing from our universities just at the time when we need them most.  Mocking two centuries of apparent secularisation in the West, religion has an all-pervasive role on the world stage.  From the persecution of Myanmar Rohingya in a surge of Buddhist nationalism, to revived power struggles between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the electoral appeal of Narendra Modi to many Hindus or Donald Trump’s popularity among US Evangelicals, we can’t hope to understand the swirl of current events or tackle their challenges without first understanding religion in all its forms.

Theology and religious studies offer antidotes to an increasingly adversarial culture. Given the chance for analytical study of belief systems, morality, art, philosophy and history in varying faiths and cultures, graduates in these disciplines leave university with an unrivalled understanding of humanity in its glorious untidy complexity.   They gain immediate practical benefits in (unlovely but useful phrase) transferable skills.  The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey shows how theology and religious studies graduates are ideally placed to enjoy rich and rewarding careers in non-religious sectors, including international development, journalism, welfare, social care, teaching, and policymaking.  In fact, theology and religious studies students graduating in 2016/17 were more likely promptly to be employed than graduates across historical and philosophical studies as a whole – and largely in professional occupations or associate professions and technical occupations – the so-called ‘highly-skilled graduate jobs’.

Unquestionably, challenges remain within university departments.  There must be more effort to get women into postgraduate study and teaching roles.  While 64% of students on first degree programmes in 2017/18 were women, women went to form only 35% among doctoral students and 37% among academic staff.  The consequent profile of theology and religious studies teaching staff is a further stumbling block to recruiting students from a generation that increasingly values diversity: not only predominantly male but also ageing (I plead guilty here on both counts). The average age of academic staff is 47, compared with around 43 in Philosophy, Classics or History – and rising.

We must tackle these challenges head on. We need our young people, and future generations, to understand each other.  More profoundly, they need to want to understand each other: not just for their own sake, but for everyone’s.  Trying to make sense of the world without a knowledge of religion – in all its forms – is like trying to knit in boxing gloves.  You can have a go, but with a little thought, you’ll find there’s a better way.  Sensitivity makes more sense.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, is a Vice-President of the British Academy.