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Theology Faculty to undergo name change

One of Oxford’s oldest departments has made plans to change its name to better describe its 21st Century identity
Robbie Smith on Wednesday 14th December 2011
Photograph: Son Pham

The Faculty of Theology will be re-titled “The Faculty of Theology and Religion” by October 2012, should the proposal be accepted by the Humanities Divisional Board and Council.

The name change is in part driven by the findings of the 2010 Review of Theology, which recommended that “the Faculty should consider changing its name to reflect more accurately its identity in the 21st Century.”

Professor Sarah Foot, Chair of the Faculty Board, suggested that the change would make clear the breadth of study available in the modern Theology course whilst also appearing more attractive to potential students. She argued that the new name would attract applicants who wished to study religions other than Christianity and those interested in comparative study on the nature of religion, stressing, “Very few institutions now offer degrees in single-honours theology and we hope to compete better with programmes elsewhere by changing our name.”

This proposal comes alongside changes to the structure and nature of the course also being discussed. These include the suggestion that Prelims should happen in Trinity term rather than Hilary of first year and that there should be greater freedom in the Final Honours School. Currently students have to study four compulsory Christian-based papers for Finals but this could be relaxed to reflect the interests of future students.

Faculty members have welcomed the planned changes, in particular suggesting that a new name is necessary to reflect how the course had changed over recent years. Dr Timothy Bradshaw, a University Research Lecturer at Regent’s Park, argued that the alteration well reflects the current reality of the Faculty, stating, “Its world famous theology teaching and research has for years included philosophy, sociology, psychology ‘of religion’, plus ‘science and religion’, and non-Christian religions.”

This was also supported by Dr Bernard Green, of St Benet’s Hall, who argued, “The new name of the Faculty expresses more clearly its membership and research interests and what it offers as degrees at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.”

However this positivity was not shared by several members of the undergraduate population. Sophie Giles, a first-year Theologian, stated, “I wouldn’t be as enticed to study ‘Theology and Religion’, probably because it reminds me of my R.S. classes at school where we learnt a few simplistic things about several religions.” Joshua Felberg, a second-year student of Theology and Oriental Studies, had the same concern, arguing, “Employers look at a degree in Religion as opposed to Theology negatively, considering one a classic academic pursuit [the latter] and the other something relative to a once a week GCSE half course.” He also expressed fears that the change could “damage the traditional nature of the University and the course.”

Answering these criticisms, Oxford can point towards statistics from Cambridge University. Despite offering a ‘Religious Studies’ programme, only 5.6% of students who graduated between 2007 and 2010 are still seeking employment. These figures left one second-year Theologian to comment, “It seems like you can get away with a crap name if the course retains the advantage of being linked to a top institution.”

Other students expressed anger that their views had not been taken on board regarding the change, especially since hostile reaction to the alteration had been registered as early as May of this year. Aidan Hampton, a first-year Theologian, stated, “I didn’t really feel part of the decision.” Another student claimed after reading the minutes of the Faculty meeting that “student opinion was ultimately seen as irrelevant” and that “those in charge of the department considered that they knew best.”

The decision was reached by the Faculty Board after a consultation period during Michaelmas this year and current students were informed of the plans in early December. The change, if it goes ahead, will only affect the title of the degree for students applying from 2013.  

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