Universities have gender, race and disability equality working groups, but not religious equality groups. In her new book, Kristin Aune finds that up to one fifth of Jewish and Muslim students report being discriminated against or harassed because of their religion. Today’s universities need to become more faith-friendly she argues.

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Universities have undergone a secular transformation. From being places of religious learning for elite men in the 11th to 13th centuries, they began to discard their religious roots as the Age of Enlightenment dawned. In the UK the birth of the red brick or civic university movement in the 19th century ushered in a new role for universities: as pioneers of science to bring economic growth to colonial Britain.

Now, religion’s on the back foot, and discrimination in favour of religion (until 1871, Oxbridge, Durham and London students had to show they were Anglican in order to be admitted to study) has reversed. Now, there is evidence of discrimination against religion.

To be sure, most religious students and staff do not feel discriminated against or harassed because of their faith. Surveys report different figures, but research reported in our new book Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America reveals that up to one fifth of Jewish and Muslim students report being discriminated against or harassed because of their religion; more report witnessing it happening to someone else.

Of the 75 Christian students we interviewed for our research on student Christianity, one in 10 said that they considered their university to be hostile or hostile-to-neutral to faith, and cited examples such as alcohol-fuelled Students’ Union social events they felt excluded from and fellow students mocking their faith. One reported a lecturer telling her that God doesn’t exist, and another said a tutor boasted, ‘I’ve got more followers than Jesus.’

And nearly a third of Buddhist and Pagan students reported to Paul Weller and Tristram Hooley, in their study for the Equality Challenge Unit, that they did not feel comfortable disclosing their religion or belief identity to their university.

Why is this? Despite the 2010 Equality Act, which made universities legally obliged to ensure equality of opportunity for students and staff irrespective of gender, ethnic background, disability, religion and other characteristics, university managers and staff still treat universities as secular spaces where religion is peripheral. Universities have gender, race and disability equality working groups, but not religious equality groups. They monitor student drop-out rates by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, but they don’t do the same for religion, even though research by my co-author Jacqueline Stevenson shows that feeling excluded because of their religion is a factor in students dropping out of university.

Universities assume that most students aren’t religious, and that if they are, they’re likely to become less religious during their university career. This isn’t true. Data from universities that collect information on students’ religious affiliation show that more than half of all students identify as religious. When our research team surveyed over 2,000 Christian students in England, we asked if they had become more, less or similarly religious since starting university. Seventy-three per cent said their religious commitments had generally stayed the same. Slightly more said they’d become more religious (15 per cent) than less religious (12 per cent).

More attention to religion will make universities better places, we believe – better for religious students, and better for freedom of speech in general. The Christian students we talked to understood that university is a place where ideas are debated, where healthy argument is a good thing as it helps people work out what to believe and helps some find God. But, as one student put it, they don’t want their faith to be mocked, marginalised or ‘brushed off like child’s play’. Urging university lecturers to listen to the religious perspectives of their students in class is a good place to start. Religious literacy training for university staff would help too. Religious student groups and chaplains and faith advisors will need to take courage to press for religion to be taken more seriously by their universities and Students’ Unions, but they can be confident that both research evidence and the law are behind them.

The piece was originally published in Christian Today.

About the author

Dr Kristin Aune is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Her books include Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America (with Jacqueline Stevenson) and Christianity and the University Experience (with Guest, Sharma & Warner).