When people think about religion in universities, what images come to mind? Often religion or belief issues are presented in media coverage as a source of division and a problem to be overcome.
Think of LSE’s “Jesus and Mo” t-shirt debacle in 2013; rows over events featuring pro-life speakers; pushy proselytism by Christians on campus; gender segregation and accusations of extremism in Islamic Societies. It appears that a significant proportion of people think religion creates problems in UK universities. YouGov polling indicates that 29 per cent of people think that “Islamic extremism” is common on campuses, rising to over a third of people aged over 55. These incidents are at the heart of the public’s moral panic about freedom of speech in higher education, with 52 per cent thinking free speech is under threat in UK universities.
These narratives are challenged by major new research from Theos, the religion and society think tank, in partnership with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. A new report, Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion, focuses on faith and belief-related student societies – such as Christian Unions, Islamic Societies and Humanist Societies – and sheds new light on how religion or belief issues play out on the ground in higher education. It is the largest study of these societies done so far, combining quantitative analysis of the spread of societies nationally with qualitative research in six universities.
As the places where our future leaders develop their values, how universities accommodate debate and diversity, including differences in religion or belief, is a critically important issue for the health of our society.
Building community and supporting students
So what do we know about faith and belief student societies? There are at least 888 of them on UK campuses, with an average of 6.3 such societies in each institution. Christian Unions are the most common type of faith and belief society, followed by islamic societies; but there are now more independent Pentecostal / Charismatic / Evangelical Christian Societies than Christian Unions, indicating a diversification of the Christian student landscape. Overall we estimate that more than 18,000 students are members of faith and belief societies nationally. This does not include the many more who attend society events but are not formally signed up.
These societies are very diverse in their activities. Some are primarily inward-facing (focusing on building community among their own members), while others look outwards as well (engaging in the local community, or engaging in proselytism). Naturally, for some societies the main activities are practising, or learning about, their religion or belief; but others are far less concerned with this, and are simply spaces for students to celebrate a shared common identity. While Islamic Societies, Christian Unions and other smaller Christian Societies often engage in faith-sharing activities, many other societies avoid this – either because they don’t see proselytism as part of their tradition, or because they are worried about being seen by other students as manipulative or coercive.
Many societies are hubs for social action and fundraising on campus, sometimes on a huge scale. For example, in a single week last year, Islamic Societies in UK universities raised over £830,000 for charity, with one society alone raising nearly £100,000. And crucially, many provide essential support for students, combating loneliness and poor mental health. We spoke to committee members of societies (students themselves) who were acting as spiritual mentors and pastoral advisors to their friends and peers. In some cases these students (particularly those from minority faiths) were acting as informal chaplains, plugging the gaps in the formal chaplaincy provision offered by their university. Repeatedly we heard stories of students who had felt lost and isolated when they started university, only finding friends when they joined a faith or belief society.
Facing challenges and handling controversy
At the same time, many of these societies face significant obstacles. Most commonly, committee members sometimes face significant pressures in terms of time and decision-making responsibilities, and in the case of smaller societies, often feel demoralised when turnout to the society activities is low. Many also struggle to undertake interfaith activities – often not from a lack of desire to do so, but simply as a result of organisational difficulties. And some continue to suffer from a lack of suitable resources or spaces in their university. A number of Jewish and Islamic Societies we engaged with told us about the difficulties they had in accessing kosher or halal food or cooking facilities, or suitable prayer spaces, which made it difficult for them to practise their religion as they wished to.
We also heard about a range of internal tensions over direction and orientation that can arise in these societies. Often these revolve around gender or sexuality issues. For example, a minority of these societies continue to have disagreements about whether women can be in charge – this was the case in a number of the Christian Unions we spoke to. But the picture is complicated – many other societies have women in positions of leadership or are in fact entirely women-led; these societies are important sites of female empowerment.
Most of the students we spoke to felt free to express their views as they wished to – chiming with polling data showing the vast majority (over 80 per cent) of students feel this way. Freedom of speech on campus is not in crisis and the public moral panic about this is largely exaggerated. But it was also clear that a minority of students do feel under pressure to self-censor their views. This was the case with students we spoke to who have socially (or politically) conservative views, or who support the policies of the Israeli government in the Israel / Palestine conflict. Our Muslim interviewees also made it clear that they felt under pressure to self-censor their views and avoid inviting potentially controversial external speakers, out of concern that they would be perceived as extreme and unfairly targeted under the Prevent duty.
Most concerningly, we found that a significant minority of Jewish and Muslim students feel vulnerable to antisemitic and Islamophobic abuse. We heard shocking examples of Jewish students being targeted with antisemitic, Nazi graffiti in their halls of residence. These were isolated incidents but show that universities still have more work to do to ensure that all students and staff feel safe on campus.
Standing priority for students’ unions
Our report shows that faith and belief societies are making enormous, often overlooked, contributions to campus life. They play key roles in building community and supporting students pastorally and spiritually. But it’s also clear that their capacity to foster cohesion and build bridges between different groups, particularly through interfaith activities, is limited. They need better resources and institutional support from universities and students’ unions if they are to meet their potential of being key sources of cohesion on campus.
That’s why we recommend, among other things, that students’ unions assign one of their permanent members of staff a religion or belief brief and ensure they receive appropriate religious literacy training. Their role should include meeting regularly with faith and belief societies, helping them rectify problems, encouraging them to undertake interfaith collaborations, and encouraging the formation of new faith and belief societies where there are notable gaps in their presence on campus. This is important because there may be students of minority religions or beliefs who are not represented by existing societies and who are struggling to make friends with people from the same community.
Cohesion, not division
More widely, we can say that while tensions over religion or belief issues do sometimes arise on campus, in general these are rare. Students live in a hyper-diverse, multicultural environment where religion or belief identities are often expressed very publicly – and contrary to public perceptions of students, by and large they are comfortable in this situation, living amicably alongside people they may disagree with strongly. Far from being special snowflakes, they are often much better at handling difference and disagreement than people outside campus. Perhaps our politicians can learn something from them.