Gerry O’Brien on a breach of solemn trust

To cease teaching theology to undergraduates at a University would seem to be a strange way to respond to the growing numbers of sixth formers opting for Religious Studies at A level. Stranger still that the proposal should come from the University of Gloucestershire, which received its charter in 2001 following a merger of a Church of England college of higher education and a local authority technology college some years earlier. Alone amongst the recently created Universities, Gloucestershire has a Church of England foundation – and over a hundred foundation fellows whose role includes monitoring the Church of England flavour of the institution.

It was at the beginning of June this year, when the pressures of exam marking were at their peak, that the staff of the Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) Department received an e-mail from senior management telling them of the proposals. There had been no prior consultation and the proposed closure of the undergraduate courses came like a bolt from the blue.

It is a sad reflection on the way an institution is run if you have to be a consummate practitioner of office politics in order to survive. Perhaps the TRS staff should have smelt a rat last year when TRS was merged into the Department of Humanities – and lost all representation on the Management Committee in the process.

Anyway when the Principal, Dame Janet Trotter, sent her e-mail there had been no consultation beforehand with any member of the TRS team. There was a blunt proposal that the undergraduate fields in Religious Studies and Theology should close with no further entry after 2003. Provision for postgraduate taught programmes and students registered for research degrees in theology was also to be closed.

All Universities are under financial pressures and if the courses concerned were undersubscribed such proposals might be understandable, but this is far from the case. In fact the TRS department has about 40 students in each year of the undergraduate programme. The MA programme, the largest in the Humanities Department, has 36 students most of whom are part-time. Research students working for PhDs also number 36, and significantly many of them are full time foreign students paying very high fees (around £8,000 per year). TRS has more research students than any other department in the University and no other Theology department in the country has as many Old Testament research students as Gloucestershire does. The total number of students in the department thus comes to about 190.

Whilst 190 students may seem a small number, compared with other departments in the University, by the standards of other theology departments one could say that Gloucestershire’s is thriving. Oxford, for example, has about 150 undergraduates in Theology.

TRS staff sought to meet senior management to argue the case against closure. They learnt of their fate (by an all-University e-mail) a week after that meeting had taken place, five days after people outside the university had been told that the TRS undergraduate programme was to end.

A lifeline was offered to TRS with the suggestion that the distance learning work, branded as the Open Theological College, would continue. However, given that two-thirds of the TRS Department’s income comes from undergraduate teaching fees, you don’t need to be a financial whizz to realize that if you cut the undergraduate teaching, then two thirds of the theology staff will have to go – and then the postgraduate teaching would not be sustainable.

Fifty-two foundation fellows attended a meeting on 2nd September and voted by 35 to 8 for an independent review to take place with regard to the future of the undergraduate courses in Theology and Religious Studies, with recruitment continuing for 2004 entry.

Three days later the University received unsolicited publicity for the proposals in the Church Times. The report quoted Professor Tony Thiselton saying that he found it difficult to imagine a postgraduate department without the underpinning of undergraduate teaching. He said he was amazed that such a proposal could have been made by a strongly Christian institution.

Dame Janet was quoted as saying that the proposal ‘represented a serious commitment to theology and religious studies.’ She claimed that there were fewer than twenty undergraduates in each year of the theology course. That figure is less than half the number of students that the Theology department claims to be teaching.

In a letter to the Foundation Fellows dated 11th September, Dame Janet asserted that ‘the process of review conducted within the University was open and transparent and involved the whole community in periodic meetings.’ Staff in the TRS department obviously see things in a somewhat different light.

She goes on to claim that in the Theology department ‘there is a background of inexorable decline in undergraduate numbers.’ No figures are given, but comments like that do help to paint a rather bleak picture. The letter goes on to propose a ‘revived future’ including further development of masters and taught postgraduate programmes, development of undergraduaduate provision based on the Open Theological College, maintenance of research degree programmes and ‘collaboration with a range of institutions in respect of strengthening our mission’. However, the cash value of these proposals if TRS loses most of its staff is unclear.

At a meeting of the University Council on 19th September it was decided to ‘suspend’ recruitment for entry to the undergraduate theology courses in 2004. This seems a bizarre idea at a time when sixth formers are filling in their UCAS forms. The courses were still on the UCAS website in mid-October, but ominously the University of Gloucestershire website only had information on entry to Theology courses in 2003.

I understand that several bishops have written directly to Dame Janet expressing their strong disapproval of the proposals. Earlier this month, Lord Carey of Clifton was installed as the University’s Chancellor, so he may have something to say about the emasculation of the Theology department.

The University Council meeting on 19th November could be the TRS department’s last hope.

However, the damage may already have been done. If potential students for 2004 have got wind of Dame Janet’s intentions, and applied instead for courses elsewhere, she may have achieved by default what the Fellows and the University Council were not prepared to sanction.

It is difficult to understand how an institution with an Evangelical trust deed could be so captivated by a secular mindset, so in awe of economic arguments – even when based on figures of student numbers so wide of the mark – and so determined to destroy an excellent Theology department that such bizarre proposals should even see the light of day.

Even if the University Council does vote for closure, there is the distinct possibility of a judicial review and the University might be found to be in breach of its trust deed. The last state could indeed be worse than the first.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.