Government counterterrorism guidance and prejudice on campus have served to marginalise Muslim students and staff in British universities, according to preliminary findings from the largest study yet of Islam and UK higher education.
The research found that many Muslim students modify their behaviour as a result of the government’s Prevent strategy – which is part of its counterterrorism policy – by self-censoring or disengaging from campus life and their studies for fear of being stigmatised, labelled an extremist or subjected to discrimination.
The study also claims that Prevent, which seeks to stop students being drawn into terrorism by, for example, imposing limitations on events featuring allegedly extremist speakers, had led to wariness among Muslim and non-Muslim students about participating in research about religion, freedom of speech and campus life.
Alison Scott-Baumann, the principal investigator on the three-year research project and professor of society and belief at Soas, University of London, told Times Higher Education that “ministers are accusing universities of using safe spaces and no platforming to suppress free speech”, but the initial findings of this research “suggest that the chilling of free speech is coming from…government initiatives”.
“It is particularly regrettable when you consider that under British legislation, the right to free speech is legally protected, whereas the need to implement Prevent takes the form of guidance, not law,” she added.
The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, was based on a national survey of more than 2,000 students at UK universities. It also consisted of qualitative research at six universities, including interviews with about 300 students, academics and other staff; staff and student focus groups; and observations of classes and campus events.
Although the majority of survey respondents agreed that Muslims made a valuable contribution to British life, the study found evidence of prejudice against Muslims on some campuses, including among some university staff, as well as evidence of direct verbal and physical discrimination, intra- and interfaith tensions and racism.
Clothing and physical appearance – in particular, hijabs and beards – were discussed often by non-Muslims during interviews, and both were seen by Muslims as markers that could lead to their being viewed as suspect, according to the draft findings.
A male Bangladeshi member of staff at one university said during the study: “As a Muslim I do have that subconscious feeling that if I was to grow a beard I might be targeted.”
The national survey found that in excess of two-fifths (43 per cent) of students – including more than 15 per cent of Muslim students – think that Islam is a religion that discriminates against women.
About a quarter of students (24 per cent) said that their main source of information about Islam was the media, compared with 16 per cent when asked about religion in general. This suggests that “perceptions of Islam may be especially vulnerable to being distorted by media bias and inaccurate reporting”, according to the study.
Just over one in 10 students (11 per cent) said that they draw most on their university for information on Islam, either through their courses or their campus life in general.
The draft findings of the “Re/presenting Islam on Campus” study were due to be presented at the conference Religion and Secularism on Campus: Examining How Universities Experience and Negotiate Diverse Beliefs at Soas on 6 and 7 September.
Professor Scott-Baumann said that the research clearly shows that “Muslims are not feeling supported – they are feeling that they are being watched, and that they are the objects of suspicion”.
“Muslims and Islam should not be seen through this lens of securitisation, but that is actually what is happening on campus – and that is damaging to university life,” she added.
Professor Scott-Baumann said that this was an issue of growing importance because the proportion of Muslim students in UK universities might rise as a result of growth in the British Muslim population and of a potential increase in non-European Union students post-Brexit.
The study found that two-thirds (66 per cent) of university modules on Islam and Muslims were taught at just 20 universities. Professor Scott-Baumann said that Islamic studies could be a “force for good” and “replace prejudicial ideas about Islam”, and suggested that the government could consider providing funding for more university-level courses.
Another idea is that universities, particularly those with the most diverse student cohorts, should consider providing cultural and religious awareness training for new staff and students.
A government spokeswoman said: “The Prevent duty is not about shutting down free speech or stigmatising individuals - it is about protecting and safeguarding young people.
“We have called on higher education organisations to stamp out those attempting to shut down free speech on universities across the countries. We are working with leaders from across the higher education sector to clarify the rules and regulations with a new piece of guidance and evidence shows that 93 per cent of institutions have policies and procedures in place to manage speakers and events which appropriately reflect their duties to ensure freedom of speech on campus.”