Religious students in a secular sector need a stronger voice

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The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis recently suggested that religious intolerance towards Jewish students is at such a level that Jewish students are being routinely ‘vilified’ on campus. Although he was addressing wider recent debates about anti-Semitism, he particularly targeted vice chancellors for their failure to address ‘Jew hatred’ religious intolerance.

Jewish students are not alone in being the victims of religious prejudiced incidents. Christian, Sikh, and Pagan students have reported a rise in xenophobia and threats of violence, as well as criticism and censure when undertaking legitimate religious activities. In addition, Islamophobic attacks on students have risen sharply and Muslim students face what they regard as intolerable levels of monitoring and surveillance. The latter is a consequence of the legislative requirement placed on universities under the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, Prevent.

Whilst concerns over religious extremism and religious intolerance both make headline news, the uneasy relationship between religion and the ‘secular’ UK university campus has profound, but largely unrecognised, implications for equity and social mobility. Under the Equality Act 2010 universities are required to protect students (and staff) against any discrimination they might experience because of their religion or belief (or because they have no religion or belief). However, returning demographic data on religious staff and students is not compulsory, unlike that relating to gender, ethnicity and disability.

A recent blog by Peter Mason, HEFCE policy advisor, highlighted that known data on students’ religious belief is low (at 44%) and that many of the returns are implausible. For example, two institutions reporting that 100% of their students held the same religion.

Whilst the new HE White Paper will require HEIs to provide data on application, offer and progression by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background, data on religion will remain optional. Designing and implementing effective anti-discriminatory policy or practice will remain difficult as long as universities remain ignorant about their religious staff and students. Whilst universities are often quick to recognise and celebrate the ethnic diversity of their student body, this rarely extends to any recognition or celebration of religious diversity. Religious students are simultaneously both highly visible – positioned as either the victims of discrimination or the cause of it – and also largely invisible, with their presence on campus both unknown and unrecognised.

Whether religion should be recognised as a ‘legitimate’ presence on the secular campus remains contested. British universities are proudly secular. Yet higher education is not, nor even has been, a wholly secular institution. Universities maintain a strong religious legacy. The sector revolves around a Christian calendar with teaching on Fridays and term times broken up by Christmas and Easter. Across many universities, theology and divinity courses continue to recruit and thrive, with Islamic studies now offered at many institutions. Furthermore, Oxford and Cambridge are demonstrably Anglican in nature. Several other universities of a broadly Christian nature also work together under the banner of the Cathedrals Group.

Nonetheless, the assumed secularity of the university campus is dominant in debates around widening participation, social justice and social mobility, such that consideration of religion is frequently relegated to little more than a required responses to new legislative initiatives. UUK’s new Social Mobility Advisory Group is not considering religious students as a priority, and none of the group’s academic advisors seem to be involved in research specifically on religion, as opposed to ethnicity, in relation to access or success.

This would not be problematic if all religious students were equally represented in HE and equally socially mobile. But they are not. I recently gave evidence to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into barriers faced by Muslims. Of all religious groups, Muslims have the lowest employment rate (47.2%) and the highest pay gap compared with those of no religion, earning 22.5% less. The lack of data on students’ religious beliefs means there is only limited research into outcomes by religion.

Since Muslim students predominantly belong to Pakistani, Bangladeshi or other BME heritage groups, we can infer from data on ethnicity how these students face discrimination across the whole of their student journey: they receive fewer offers, they leave with worse degrees than white students from similar backgrounds, and they are much less likely to be employed following graduation.

Still, substituting ethnicity data for religion, whilst helpful, is insufficient. The Women and Equalities committee is to be applauded in addressing the link between religion and social mobility. Substantially more work needs to be done within universities, as well as by national organisations such as the UUK Social Mobility Advisory Group. In particular, the sector needs to understand the extent to which students are being discriminated against because of their religion and not just their ethnicity. We can only start to do this by gathering robust data.

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