A few months ago, concerns were raised about antisemitism and racism at the University of Exeter, after a swastika and a “Rights for Whites” sign were found in halls of residence. The incident followed reports of students wearing T-shirts bearing slogans such as “the Holocaust was a good time” and “Don’t talk to me if you’re not white”.
Sadly, this is not an isolated event – religious discrimination appears to be on the up in universities. Research shows that Jewish and Muslim students are affected worse (pdf), with about a fifth saying they have experienced discrimination or harassment because of their religion. The Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism on campus, reported a doubling of campus-related antisemitic attacks in 2016 in comparison with the previous year.
Smaller religious groups also report problems. Nearly a third of Buddhist and Pagan students told researchers writing a report for the Equality Challenge Unit that they did not feel comfortable openly disclosing their religion or belief to their university.
Supporting religious students and staff – ensuring equality of opportunity, eliminating harassment, and nurturing good relations between those who are religious and those who are not – is a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010. So why is harassment motivated by religion such a problem, and how can universities tackle it?
Research for my new book, Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America, reveals three obstacles.
1. Religion is seen as a minority interest
University staff and managers assume that universities are secular and secularising, believing that religion is a minority interest, and that classroom debate leads people to embrace secularism. This means they don’t prioritise the needs of religious campus members. But it isn’t a minority interest, and faith does not wither at university, our research shows.
Data collected by some universities shows that at least half of all university students (perhaps as many as two-thirds) identify as religious. There are as many religious people on university campuses as there are women.
Universities are tackling the under-attainment of ethnic minority students, and are seeking to recruit more female professors. That work is vital, of course, but inequalities based on religion are just as important. Research by my co-author, Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, shows that there is a religious dimension to ethnic inequalities, with students citing exclusion based on their religion as a factor in dropping out.
2. Students are viewed as a threat
Religion is sometimes seen as a threat requiring surveillance, rather than a resource to be used in the service of diversity, dialogue and rich human relationships. This is evident in some universities’ responses to the government’s ‘Preventing violent extremism’ higher education guidance.
Critics of the Prevent duty are concerned that it stifles freedom of speech, arguing that more effort seems to have gone into creating and enforcing visiting speaker policies to prevent students being radicalised than ensuring religious freedom and protecting vulnerable religious groups.
The NUS and Muslim student groups have raised concerns that Muslim students, and especially Islamic societies, feel they are being monitored and are seen as threats in their institutions. Religious students may feel they are viewed as potential extremists, even though evidence of radicalisation on campus is negligible.
3. We don’t listen enough
Policy decisions about religion are often made without reference to religious students themselves. Gender and race equality working groups exist in most universities, but there are almost no religious equality working groups.
The religious student experience is rarely listened to. Until recently, the NUS did not campaign on religion. Thankfully this has changed, but even now it’s not classed as one of it ‘liberation’ campaigns, which currently exist for female, black, LGBT and disabled students.
So what can universities do differently? First, they should collect data on the religious identities of their students and use that anonymised data to assess how religious identity affects outcomes, such as course progression rates, degree grades and student satisfaction. This is already recommended by the Higher Education Funding Council for England but should be made compulsory.
Second, religious literacy should be integrated into teaching courses undertaken by all new lecturers, namely the Higher Education Academy-accredited postgraduate learning and teaching courses.
Third, we need universities to create religious equality working groups, following the model that exists on most campuses for gender, disability, race or sexual orientation. These groups should include religiously diverse students and staff, report to wider university committees and advise the university on how to ensure they’re abiding by the requirements of equality legislation. Such groups might recommend that canteens cater for religious diets so students of faith don’t go hungry, for example, that students have space to pray on campus, or that there is a faith advisor to talk to.
These proposals are neither revolutionary nor hard to implement. But the impact on religious students feeling unwelcome or alienated could be dramatic. Religion is an equality and a diversity issue – and it’s time to treat it as such.