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Theology and Religious Studies risk disappearing as student numbers decline

A new report by the UK's national body for the humanities and social sciences have released a new report showing a steep decline in student numbers studying Theology and Religious degrees.

The report revealed that there were about 6,500 fewer students on such degree courses in 2017 - 2018 than six years ago, when fees were increased.

The decline has led to the closure or reduction in size of several university theology departments. For instance, the UK's specialist theological institution, Heythrop College, founded in 1614, closed its doors in 2018 after over 400 years of teaching.

Speaking to Premier, Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, said many students are unaware of the transferable skills a theology degree can bring: "I don't think schools really appreciate what a good move it is to do a degree in theology and religious studies, the outcomes for students in terms of their future careers is extremely good."

Sir MacCulloch stressed the vital role religious education plays in modern life: "We live in a multicultural, multi-faith society here, and despite all its faults, it's been a success.

"But it can't go on being a success, if there are not enough people to appreciate the differences in particular religious cultures."

The report also highlighted significant gender imbalances between Theology and Religious Studies students and staff.

While women made up 64 percent of students on first degree programmes in 2017 - 2018, they made up only 35 percent of doctoral students and 37 percent of academic staff.

In other similar humanities subjects 53 percent of academics are women. Meanwhile, the average age of academic staff is 47 years old compared with around 43 in Philosophy, Classics or History - and the average age has been rising.

If unaddressed, the profile of TRS teaching staff could prove to be a stumbling block to recruiting students from the next generation, who increasingly value diversity, leading to further 'pipeline' problems in the disciplines.

Warning of the 'pipeline' problems, Professor Roger Kain FBA, Vice-President of Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy, said:

"This report comes at a critical time for Theology and Religious Studies. Not only are the subjects' popularity on the wane but the problem is confounded by the profile of their teaching staff; if more ethnically and gender diverse groups do not rise through the ranks, there is a danger that these highly relevant disciplines disappear from our universities."

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