Faith and belief on UK campuses – Division and cohesion

There has been remarkable growth of faith and belief societies in British universities. At least 888 societies with more than 18,000 members operate on campuses. “Universities have become a battleground in a much larger culture war,” a new report points out. They are also havens for free speech, where religions flourish harmoniously alongside each other.

“The place of religion or belief is increasingly contested, both as an academic subject and in terms of its presence on campus,” says Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and cohesion – Exploring student faith and belief societies, published by Theos, a religion and society think tank with a Christian basis.

The report is authored by Simon Perfect, a researcher at Theos and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies; Ben Ryan, Theos head of research; and Professor Kristin Aune of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

“Universities have become a microcosm of broader societal clashes on the role of religion or belief in the public square,” says the report.

On the one hand, matters of belief have become prominent on campuses and new legislation expects universities to play a key role in combatting extremism. On the other hand, there is rising animosity towards religious groups. “Islamic societies are particularly in the spotlight and some have been accused of being hotbeds of extremism. Other societies, including Christian societies, also report experiencing hostility.”

A controversial issue

Religion or belief issues are central to controversies on campus that often revolve around tension between the right to freedom of speech (of students, staff and speakers) and the desire of some students to protect minority groups from speech they consider harmful.

“The perception that freedom of speech is becoming restricted across society, but particularly in educational institutions, has become a cause célèbre in recent years,” say the authors.

In January 2019 YouGov conducted a poll for Theos which revealed that 52% of British adults believe freedom of speech is under threat in universities, while only 14% disagree. Interestingly, 44% of people thought universities should always support freedom of speech within the law – even for extreme speakers – while 35% thought there were some views so offensive that universities shouldn’t allow them. A sizeable minority – 29% – thought ‘Islamic extremism’ is common in universities.

A context of complex legal uncertainties places universities, student unions and students in a double bind, the report continues: on one hand they are accused of unfairly restricting freedom of speech for legitimate (especially conservative) voices – and on the other hand of giving too much freedom to voices deemed illegitimate or dangerous.

More broadly, the argument is over what sort of a public square universities and faith groups want to create, write Perfect, Ryan and Aune.

“This taps into a broader dispute about the nature of a liberal society. Most people agree that we want society as a whole to be marked by freedom of speech, debate and association, and to be open and hospitable to people of different views and backgrounds, without at the same time sacrificing its security or condoning obnoxious or threatening views.

“Universities are a microcosm of this wider debate, providing a defined and often intense arena for such difference and debate, while also helping form the leaders and citizens of the future.” The question of how universities accommodate and deal with difference and debate is critical – “the canary in the coalmine of a liberal society”.

The report offers a statistical overview of student religion or belief; the quantitative results of two surveys and an internet search exercise; qualitative interviews in six universities with more than 70 students; and the activities and appeal of faith and belief societies.

The belief student landscape

In 2017-18 there were 2.3 million students enrolled in UK higher education, of whom 1.8 million were undergraduates and 567,000 were postgraduates, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency or HESA.

The religious affiliation of enrolled students in 2016-17 was obtained, based on 134 out of 167 institutions that returned information to HESA – they represent a total of 1.85 million students, 1.31 million of whom provided information on their religion or belief.

Among these students, 49.5% said they had no religion (646,455 students), 33.9% that they were Christians (443,090 students) and 8.4% that they were Muslims (110,140 students).

Smaller proportions said they were Hindu (1.4% or 25,690 students), Buddhist (1.4% or 25,485 students), ‘spiritual’ (1% or 18,325 students), Sikh (0.6% or 10,395 students) and Jewish (0.3% or 5,610 students), while 1.2% (22,015) were of ‘any other religion or belief’.

White people comprised 77.3% of all UK-domiciled students and black and ethnic minority people comprised 22.7%. The data shows that among students with ‘no religion’, more than half a million or 92.2% are white, and 77.2% of students who are Christian are white.

As expected, the report states, “a higher than average proportion of those describing themselves as Sikh (99.6%), Hindu (99.4%), Muslim (96.5%) and Buddhist (31.1%) were black and ethnic minority”. Conversely, a lower than average proportion of those describing themselves as of no religion (7.8%) or Jewish (8.6%) were black and ethnic minority.

Challenges facing societies

The research showed mostly positive views about the achievements of faith societies. But there were issues that limit their contribution. Some respondents said societies were “isolated, inward-looking and, in the worst cases, a source of division”, the authors write.

Societies face numerous challenges, including: patchy support from universities and student unions; lack of provision of space or resources, including for religious practices; funding and organisational issues; low levels of participation; non-member misconceptions about the society and-or the religion or belief; internal divisions; and a lack of capacity and external support to help undertake interfaith activities.

Some of the issues, such as insufficient provision of necessary facilities, “are unacceptable and universities should take steps to remedy them, whilst listening carefully to the needs of the students themselves”. Others, such as how a society is perceived by non-members, are beyond the responsibility of universities and student unions. But interventions can help.

Handling controversial issues

By and large, the research found – contrary to popular opinion – that “universities are places where different religion or belief identities flourish harmoniously alongside each other”. However, religion or belief also underpin significant controversies.

The research considered freedom of speech on campus, external speakers, the Prevent Duty, gender and sexuality, faith-sharing activities, and antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Universities are seen as having a unique role in upholding freedom of speech and providing spaces for debate on difficult issues.

In England and Wales, university governing bodies have a strong legal duty to take steps to uphold freedom of speech. This includes the expression of views many people would find abhorrent – as long as they are within the law.

But there are other rules that place restrictions on free speech.

One is the Prevent Duty, introduced via the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in 2015. Universities are expected to: train staff to identify people who may be drawn into “extremist ideas which risk drawing people into terrorism”; establish mechanisms to support such people; and where necessary refer them to Channel, the de-radicalisation programme.

Universities are also required to assess and mitigate the risk that external speakers will express extreme views that lead people into terrorism. There has been concern that this will lead to risk-averse university staff turning down speakers with controversial but lawful views, write Perfect, Ryan and Aune.

In 2017-18, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted an inquiry into campus free speech and concluded: “The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality.” But it confirmed that some factors “chill freedom of speech on campus, including intimidating behaviour by protesters during events, and restrictive attitudes in policies designed to protect students from harm”.

It also found that “bureaucratic and regulatory issues can encourage risk aversion and self-censorship”, and that implementation of the Prevent Duty had discouraged Muslim students from requesting ‘controversial’ speakers “or speaking as openly as they want on political or religious matters, for fear they may be misidentified as extremists”.

External speakers on campus
A 2016 survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that 83% of students feel free to express their views and 60% think that universities should never limit freedom of speech. However, 43% think that protection from discrimination and ensuring the dignity of minorities can be more important than unlimited freedom of speech.

Much of the debate about freedom of speech on campus focuses on controversial external speakers requested by student societies – but in fact, faith societies hosting external speakers is quite rare, and mostly the events proceed without problems.

Interviewees offered few indications of society events being disrupted by protest. Where they were, frequently the events were about the Israel-Palestine conflict. These events generate protests, and sometimes speakers are shouted down, curbing their free speech. Also, the fraught environment makes many Jewish students uncomfortable about debating the conflict.

The Prevent Duty
The public narrative is that universities are unwittingly facilitating the growth of violent extremism. While there have been cases where jihadists were radicalised while studying, the report states, there is “little publicly available evidence to show that Islamic societies have been particularly significant hubs for breeding potential terrorists”.

“If students are vulnerable to radicalisation, this could be just as likely to happen in networks outside an Islamic society (and particularly online) than inside it. Universities are not hotbeds of potential terrorists,” says the report.

The Prevent Duty has faced “significant opposition” from students and staff, says the report. The Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry was told by a variety of sources that the Prevent Duty “has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech, encouraging Muslims to censor their speech on political or religious matters for fear they may be misidentified as extremists”.

Conclusions and recommendations

It is clear, the research concluded, that a minority of students – particularly Muslims but also pro-Israel Jewish students and people with socially conservative views – feel restricted regarding what they can say on campus.

“At the same time, however, the twin public narratives about universities and freedom of speech – that there is a real crisis of freedom of speech in universities, or that universities are giving free reign to extremists and racists – are untenable,” write Perfect, Ryan and Aune.

“Most of our interviewees felt free to express their views and, most importantly in the context of our study, to practise their religion or belief as they wished. And while it is undoubtedly true that some universities have hosted external speakers with offensive or extreme views, this is not necessarily unlawful, nor does it mean that extreme views among students are widespread.”

It appeared that public concerns that freedom of speech is under threat in universities and that ‘Islamic extremism’ is common are “exaggerated or overblown”.

However, it should not be overlooked that a minority of primarily religious students “feel the need to censor their freedom of speech on campus”; and that a minority feel vulnerable to, or have been victims of, religious-based hate crime.

The report offers recommendations for societies, universities and student unions.

They range from increased collaboration between faith societies, support for societies with organisational or low participation challenges and a permanent student union staff member with a ‘religion’ brief, to improved facilities for major religions such as prayer rooms and kitchen spaces and regular engagement by universities with students of different religions to learn what they require in order to practise their religion or belief freely.

“Universities and student unions should recognise the contributions of faith and belief societies to campus life. They should encourage the flourishing of diverse religion or belief communities on campus,” the report recommends.

“Universities and students’ unions must be proactive in ensuring that students and staff of all religions and beliefs are and feel safe on campus, particularly Jews and Muslims in light of persistent antisemitism and Islamophobia”.