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Why we need tertiary religious studies and theology

  • 17 June 2021
The University of Sydney has recently announced that it is considering closing its religious studies department; a decision that comes off the back of major cuts to government funded universities, and a doubling of the cost to study degrees in the humanities. This closure, however, is not the first of its kind. Opportunities for Australians to pursue theology and religious studies at the tertiary level are shrinking, and many are looking to overseas institutions as a result. If this trend continues, it won’t take long for Australia to lose its ability to meaningfully contribute to global and local religious thought. 

Enrolment in religious studies has always been comparatively low, even before the rise in degree price. In 2018, the faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University saw a total of 1,310 enrolments across their seven national campuses. The faculty of Education and Arts, on the other hand, saw 11,517. This discrepancy is felt in the lecture room, as many theology units are attended primarily by teaching students completing the requirements for working in Catholic schools. As for the secular University of Sydney, religious studies units were available only through a Bachelor of Arts, following the more anthropological tradition of studies of religion — as opposed to the typically faith based tradition of theology. 

Although it may be easier to understand why a secular university is more willing to liquidate its religion department than a religious university, the fact that very few public universities in Australia offer a PhD in theology or religion indicates that this is a problem that transcends the divide between religious and secular universities. This is a problem of a lack of forward thinking that stems from the misplaced priorities of Australia as a whole.

The current government has made no attempt to hide the fact that it views investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) as more lucrative for the Australian economy than the humanities. While this is ultimately the driving force behind cuts to funding, the culpability for reacting to these cuts by terminating studies of religion lies with universities. The closure of an entire faculty not only affects students, but narrows the job market for academics who are already short on opportunities.

In Australia, there are few avenues open for religious study graduates who are not looking to go into ministry or pastoral care; the predominant option being academia and research. Further limiting these by