A researcher has urged universities to rethink their status as purely secular institutions and to embrace religious alongside sexual and racial diversity.
In past centuries, said Kristin Aune, senior research fellow at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, universities in the Western world were “very much connected to religion”, so “there was discrimination in favour of religion”. However, “that has now gone, and there is a sense among some religious students that they are experiencing discrimination”, she told Times Higher Education.
“Surveys [in Britain], particularly for Jewish and Muslim students, show figures of up to a third – we can safely say one in five – saying [that] they have been discriminated against or harassed,” Dr Aune said. Something similar applies to Hindus and to a lesser extent Sikhs and, while most Christian students see their universities as “relatively friendly to faith”, one in 10 sees them as neutral to hostile, she said.
The “hostility” that religious students experience can take many forms. There are “issues of what happens in the classroom”, where they feel that lecturers say “insulting and mocking things” such as “As we know, God doesn’t exist”, rather than welcome dialogue. Others complain about “lecturers being unwilling to make any sort of accommodation to their religious needs”, by, for example, scheduling “compulsory fieldtrips on Sunday”. Another cause for concern is “exclusion from social events because of a student culture based on drinking”.
Although she estimates that “probably 40 to 50 per cent of students in Britain are religious”, Dr Aune regrets that universities tend not to collect data on this and so are unaware of the scale of the issue.
Universities committed to internationalisation face further challenges, since incoming students often have higher levels of religious commitment than their host communities.
“The international student experience is quite a tricky one, partly because such students often feel that their cultural background, including their religion, isn’t catered for very well by universities,” Dr Aune said. “If we want to attract the best students in the world, we have to accept that we can’t just expect them to mould themselves to our secular way of doing things.”
In order to throw further light on these issues, she has co-edited a book with Jacqueline Stevenson, head of research at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, titled Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America.
The introduction challenges the view that universities are simply “sites of secularisation”. Far too often, argue the editors, “institutional policy in relation to religion on campus” is “crafted without an adequate or accurate understanding of staff or students’ actual on-campus experience”. And when universities do address questions of religion on campus, it is frequently “because it is perceived as a threat, for example, through student fundamentalism, or because there have been instances of religious intolerance”.
So what practical steps should universities adopt to take better account of religious sensibilities?
The essential answer, Dr Aune told THE, is to treat the issue as seriously as other forms of diversity. In Britain, for example, “we need to take full account of what the 2010 Equality Act requires. We do that for gender and for ethnicity and to some extent for disability and sexual orientation. We don’t do it for religion. We need to collect data…That would be a brilliant first step.”
After that, Dr Aune would like to see universities “doing the kind of things we do about gender equality, such as creating working groups, so the university has to ensure that all its policies and systems are inclusive”. New lecturers could be explicitly taught about “understanding religious diversity in the classroom”.
Just as many white people have never stopped to think about what it might mean to belong to an ethnic minority, Dr Aune doesn’t believe that universities are acting with “wilful neglect” towards religion, but just that many leaders in higher education “don’t know anything about religion and haven’t reflected on the perspective of a religious person”. “If universities could take a few steps, it would lead to fewer people dropping out and better relations on campus,” she said.
Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America, edited by Jacqueline Stevenson and Kristin Aune, was recently published by Routledge.