Religion and belief in Higher Education

Mention ‘religion’ in the context of higher education and the assumption is that you’re about to talk about Prevent, or inadequate prayer spaces, or free speech.

These are all very real and complex issues. But it’s interesting how many sector discourses still tend to ‘problematize’ religion and belief, and are quickly delegated to the Chaplaincy team – if you have one.

“Religion and belief” is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, and publicly funded institutions have to give “due regard” to advancing equality around this characteristic – just like they must for sex, disability, race and so forth. It’s not just about religious people either: protections also cover those who have no religion, and also some non-religious philosophical beliefs (for example, around animal rights). But few institutions have made religious inclusion a key priority for their institutional strategies, or equality objectives around staff and students. Recent policy and societal shifts may mean it’s time for a re-think.

Does HE have a problem with religion?

The Equality Challenge Unit (as was) commissioned research into the inclusion of religion and belief in UK universities in 2011.  The research – the first of its kind – found that on the whole, most staff and students actually felt that they didn’t face discrimination in their institutions. Most students felt that teaching on their course was sensitive to their religious beliefs (or none). Many staff didn’t really see it as an issue. But there were indications of some things we weren’t, as a sector, getting consistently right, including quite a number of the basics: providing food that everyone could eat, being consistent about policies and procedures, managing requests for time off for religious observance.

In the years since, the sectors faced major changes which have prompted greater attention to this protected characteristic. Internationalisation has provided both opportunities and challenges around meeting the needs (and expectations) of different groups. ‘Prevent’ has raised questions about both safeguarding and securitisation on campus. NUS has highlighted some worrying experiences of particular groups.  Religious harassment in wider society is at an all-time high and has not left higher education communities untouched. And, less dramatic, but of no less importance, equality data collection has evolved so that for the first time, institutions must return their student religion and belief data to HESA: so we could finally get a clearer picture about equality of opportunity and outcomes for different groups.

However, at Advance HE one of the key changes we’ve seen has been a sector and institutional focus on race equality.

Difficult but necessary conversations

No assumptions should ever be made about someone’s beliefs based on their ethnicity (and vice versa). But it has been fascinating how many institutions working on race equality have also started to consider religion in their efforts to tackle underrepresentation and improve staff and student experiences. Religion and ‘race’ (which legally, refers to ethnicity, nationality and colour) have complex intersections and understandings. Some religious identities are also ethnic identities. Some beliefs (religious or non-religious) are statistically or historically more prevalent in certain ethnic or national backgrounds. And when it comes to experiencing religious or racial hate incidents and harassment, definitions and reporting mechanisms can cloud our understanding of what our students (and staff) are experiencing.

As the sector (and, it seems, the Office for Students and the Director for Fair Access) becomes increasingly concerned with intersectional equality issues, we see an opportunity to look again at religion and belief: not as one equality strand managed in isolation, but as another factor in an individual students’ identity and experience. Plenty of HE-specific research tells us that for each student (to differing degrees) religious or non-religious beliefs can impact on their sense of belonging in an institution, the way they are supported to access and contribute to their learning, their relations with peers, and how safe they feel on campus. On the latter, we’re pleased that the Office for Students is also funding a range of catalyst programmes to tackle religious harassment on campus as part of its safeguarding work.

Getting the foundations right

It was felt timely then to consolidate and update our guidance for institutions on getting the basics right on religious inclusion. Our new guidance offers an overview of opportunities to develop inclusive practice throughout the staff and student lifecycles, as well as ensuring supportive environments and facilities (for example, guidance on prayer facilities, and student accommodation).

We are not seeking to enter any debate about the role of religion as a whole in education nor the academic or research focus of institutions. We do however want to make sure that institutions are mindful of their statutory obligations, and to support the sector to take the next steps in bringing this protected characteristic back into strategic inclusion efforts.

We want the sector to place greater strategic focus on the inclusion of different beliefs in order to:

  • Create an environment where all students and staff feel safe to be themselves, and can respectfully explore difference of thought and practice.
  • Minimise discrimination against individuals and groups because of their religion, belief, or having no belief, in staff and student access, participation and success (including teaching and learning)
  • Provide greater clarity on institutional policies and decision making
  • Enhance and inform work supporting other protected characteristics, such as race equality.

Public and political discourses on community relationships, discrimination and hate crime are ever changing. In this context we want to ensure continued momentum for this work: and there is a lot of good work happening in our universities, as we share through our range of case studies of good practice from across the UK.

After all, if universities can role-model to students how to interact with diverse backgrounds and beliefs, we can ensure that future workers, leaders, neighbours and employers are better prepared for intercultural and interfaith dialogue. A UK where folks talk a bit better with each other – and with the wider world – seems like a good aim right now.

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