Religious societies in UK universities provide vital support for their members but need to do far more to reach out to each other, a report says.
Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion, released on 4 July by the religion and society thinktank Theos and Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, found “at least 888 [faith and belief] societies” operating in UK universities, with an estimated membership of more than 18,000. Despite inevitable “challenges and internal divisions”, said lead author Simon Perfect, a researcher at SOAS University of London, “faith and belief societies are very good at building bonds between members of the same religion or belief group”, offering a vital support resource for lonely or distressed students and usually a place to practise their religion.
Yet Mr Perfect also wanted to see them reaching out to each other because “universities are central places for learning the value of living alongside people with different identities and beliefs. If we can get universities where this kind of dialogue and understanding is very strong, that has very beneficial repercussions for wider society.”
It was here that many societies were failing to live up to their potential. Some, admitted Mr Perfect, simply put their efforts elsewhere. A number of Christian Unions, for example, were focused on proselytisation – sometimes even outside nightclubs – and “less interested in sitting on a panel and giving students of a different faith or belief a public voice”.
Yet in general, the researchers had found “a strong appetite” for interfaith work. Mr Perfect cited the case of an Islamic Society “hoping to organise a poetry slam event with the Christian Union” and “really good work being done by Sikh societies who wanted to reach out to a whole variety of faith groups”. Practical and logistical issues, unfortunately, often meant that these aspirations often bore little fruit.
The report’s concluding recommendations therefore urge faith and belief societies to “explore ways of increasing the frequency with which they collaborate with other such societies” and to set realistic targets such as “organising at least one small-scale collaboration…per term”. But it also saw a much bigger role for students’ unions. One promising option was giving a religiously literate “permanent member of staff a religion or belief brief”. Such individuals could then “invit[e] the Faith & Belief Forum or other interfaith organisations to help organise” events or “set up an ‘interfaith buddy’ scheme, directly connecting members of different religions or beliefs and encouraging them to form friendships”.
“The students need institutional support from the union,” agreed Mr Perfect, citing a case where a staff member was “very proactive in going out to speak to those societies and asking them what their needs were and trying to build links. That can lead to a one-off panel debate or, better still, a medium- to long-term project, for example around social action.”
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