Falling student numbers could see Theology and Religious Studies disappear from universities, report warns

An aerial view of the University of Oxford(Photo: Unsplash/Sidharth Bhatia)

The British Academy has warned that theology and religious studies could "disappear" from universities after a study found that the number of students taking the subjects has halved.

An analysis by the British Academy found a staggering decline in the numbers of students enrolling on the courses in just six years, down from over 14,000 students in 2011/12 to 7,585 in 2017/18. 

The decline covers a whole spectrum of programmes, from undergraduates, to masters, doctorates, foundation courses and diplomas. 

"Theology and Religious Studies has been on a downward trend in both applications and enrolment of undergraduate students from 2012/13 onwards," the report says.

"If this trend continues, [the] provision will come under serious threat at many institutions and the department closures and mergers, which have already started, will likely continue."

The report adds that the cause of the decline is not linked to the study of the subject at high school level as RE at A-level has seen an increase in enrollments in the past six years.

However, the study did find that the number of students taking Philosophy at university-level had increased in the same period. 

It also found a lack of diversity among Theology and Religious Studies academics, with staff tending to be male and older than those in other humanities departments.

British Academy vice president, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, told The Daily Telegraph that the findings were "alarming". 

"I am extremely concerned about the drop in such a short period, it is really very alarming," he said.

"The problem starts at school. Teachers are not directing people in this important direction and not seeing the value in Theology and Religious Studies."

Prof MacCulloch, an expert in church history at Oxford University, added that unless there was an improvement in ethnic and gender diversity, there was "a danger that these highly relevant disciplines disappear from our universities".