How far should universities go to accommodate the demands of religious groups, asks Alex Klaushofer.
Times are certainly changing for the devout on Britain's campuses. According to many leaders of religious communities, higher education institutions are striving to meet the faith needs of their students like never before, providing places of worship, food that accords with religious observance and timetables that take account of holy days.
The Rev Jonnie Parkin, an Anglican chaplain with a multi-faith brief at De Montfort University, detects "tremendous progress over the past ten years".
He describes how the broader cultural shift that has taken place in public life, which accepts religious affiliation as part of identity, has come to permeate university life.
"De Montfort is a secular institution. That doesn't mean being hostile to faith; it means not being dominated by one faith over another," he says.
"It's about creating a cultural environment where people can confidently express what they are and what they believe without being demonised."
Baroness Uddin, the country's leading Muslim female peer, agrees. "Overall, universities have become much more in the forefront of catering to the faith needs of students," she says. "Ten years ago, it wouldn't have occurred to me that Muslim groups would ask for prayer rooms."
Muslims - the country's largest ethnic minority faith group - have benefited particularly from this new climate. According to Mohamed Mukadam, chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools, it has reversed the educational fortunes of Muslim women. "About six years ago, there were hardly any girls going into higher education," he says. "This was largely because parents were still concerned about losing their daughters to the West. The girls came to our schools and, after 16, they went back to the kitchen."
But, with the help of a campaign targeted at parents and imams, the picture is now very different. "Ninety-five per cent of our girls are moving on to further and higher education," he says. "Girls coming out of faith schools are sufficiently developed in their faith identities and values. Parents feel at ease in sending them to universities, even though there are no single-sex universities or teaching."
The result, Uddin claims, is that young Muslim women in higher education are flourishing. "These women are going through a process of emancipation,"
she says. "Among the exceptional students, there are more young women than men."
Doubtless, much of the reason for this greater participation lies with the way universities are responding to the needs of an increasingly confident and vocal constituency. "Muslim students have become much more assertive about their rights within higher education," says Leslie Wagner, former vice-chancellor of the University of North London. "The university has become a more religion-friendly environment to Muslim students. Instead of saying 'we want you to provide higher education in our environment', they (Muslim students) are saying much more: 'We want you to replicate our environment within your institution'."
But there is one religiously based requirement that mainstream higher education cannot meet sufficiently: the demand from some orthodox groups for the segregation of the sexes. According to Melanie Danan, policy manager at the Interlink Foundation, a voluntary organisation that works with the Orthodox Jewish community, the lack of single-sex provision keeps female members of the Charedi community from going to university. "All settings are single gender from a young age, so people would be reluctant on that front," she explains.
The pattern of education for such women is to leave school at 16, go to a seminary and then, if inclined to further study, do an Open University degree. Consequently, Danan continues, "there's an under-qualification within the Stamford Hill community in London. There's a dearth of secular qualifications, especially in areas such as social work and midwifery."
MST College in Hendon, which offers Orthodox Jewish women a one-year undergraduate degree in a single-sex environment, is one exception. Judith Nemeth, its dean, says: "The reason we exist is because there isn't provision. Our girls have no option - it's this or nothing."
The only other solution is to move provision out of a traditional university setting and into an Orthodox environment. Danan says. "In-house would probably be a good way, by bringing the course within the community.
There are examples in Israel and in the US where the strictly Orthodox community runs courses within that community."
Wagner, who is also a Jewish community leader, explored this option when he led UNL in the early 1990s but he found it unviable. "We couldn't do it - not because of any principle, but because the numbers didn't match up," he says.
Ultimately, he argues, the lifestyle required by religious orthodoxy means opting out of mainstream higher education. "That's a choice people have to make if they want a professional qualification. If it's too difficult, there is always the OU option," he says. Rabbi Julia Neuberger, president of Liberal Judaism, shares this view: "It's basically their choice. That's the best you can do."
The issue illustrates how the debate about multiculturalism that is preoccupying British society enters the university campus: how far should society, in the form of higher education institutions, go to accommodate minorities, and what compromises should minorities make to adapt?
Talk to devout Muslims and most will admit that although single-sex education is preferable according to the tenets of their faith, its absence is not an over-riding concern. "I don't think there's any ground for objections from Muslims. It is entirely contrary to Islamic thinking for them to withdraw because of mixing with the other sex," says Dawud Noibi, a professor and a consultant for the Iqra Trust, an Islamic education charity. "To be educated is a binding duty on Muslims."
Extreme views do exist, he admits. "There are young Muslims who say it is not acceptable to attend mixed universities, and for this reason they are propagating the view that people should withdraw from universities," he says. "But we have strongly advised them against going down this route."
Although a bit of give-and-take from both sides - a willingness to integrate from the Muslim community and an effort to accommodate their needs from higher education institutions - has clearly helped Muslim students, there is some feeling that the needs of other faith groups are less well recognised.
"There is a sense among Sikhs and Hindus that Muslims have a higher profile and get more concessions made to them," says Eleanor Nesbitt, reader in religions and education at the Warwick Institute of Education and author of a faith guide on Sikhism for the Higher Education Authority. "It's true that Muslims have been more demanding of space."
Yet although Sikhs are the fourth-largest faith group in Britain, she says relatively little is known about their faith, with the result that blunders are likely. "There's always a risk, with the best will in the world, of people taking an inappropriate step," she says. For example, she says: "It wouldn't be acceptable to Sikhs to keep the Sikh scriptures (the single volume in the original language) on a bookshelf, as the Sikh practice is to show respect by housing them in a particular way."
These sorts of issues pose questions for institutions trying to be faith-friendly, but some of the trickiest conundrums arise from the social milieu beyond an administration's control.
Last term, Nesbitt found herself on the receiving end of confidences from a Sikh and a Hindu student that they were uncomfortable with the drinking culture that prevailed on campus. The Sikh, a rugby player, gave up his sport as a result. "Somehow or other in universities it needs to be made clear that, just as you can come out as gay, it's OK to come out as someone who doesn't drink alcohol," she says. "But how to do that as an institution, I don't know."
It was this kind of concern that prompted the HEA to publish a series of faith guides, which it has sent to every higher education institution.
"Some of the trickiest things were to do with fieldwork, especially for geologists and geographers," says Simon Smith, associate director of the HEA's Philosophical and Religious Studies Centre. "You do the fieldwork during the day and you sort out the findings at the pub in the evening.
That wasn't something all students were comfortable with."
Change in this area is likely to occur as a gradual shift in attitudes, as staff become more aware of what does and does not work for a diverse, multifaith student body. "A lot of it is down to reflective practice,"
Smith says. "I think people want to ask the questions, but they haven't necessarily known what the sensitive issues are."
Parkin, who is setting up a new model of multifaith chaplaincy at De Montfort, agrees. "The big challenge for univer-sities is being able to take the insights of what the university has discovered through research and being able to apply that to itself as an institution," he says.
Students are doing their bit, too. De Montfort is also home to a new student-led interfaith body, act IF. "The idea is to bring people of different viewpoints together," says Mel Gould, a student community worker involved in the project.
Not everyone is happy with the growing trend to provide multifaith space.
"We think it's another recipe for division and religious warfare on campus," says Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society.
"The number of people who are involved in religion on campus is very small, but they are vociferous. I think it's got completely out of control."
But others point out that the economics of higher education are helping to ensure that the trend continues. "Universities are grappling with the issue of faith provision," says Alexander Goldberg, community issues director at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. "Many are funded by large numbers of international students who have a lot of faith needs. In pure market terms, they have to provide for them."
'Muslim girls are leaving faith schools sufficiently developed in their faith identities and values. Parents feel at ease in sending them to university, even though there is no single-sex teaching'