Survey of staff and student faith draws criticism

Universities should gather information on the religious backgrounds of their staff and consider "investigation into the intersections between the curriculum, teaching and religion or belief", according to a report that is under fire from secularists.

July 14, 2011

University of Derby researchers carried out staff and student surveys in the first-ever study of religious belief in higher education, compiled for the Equality Challenge Unit, the sector's equality body.

The study, Religion and Belief in Higher Education: the Experiences of Staff and Students, published on 11 July, recommends that universities' processes for collecting staff and student data "could be updated to gather information on religion and belief, which will support meet the new public-sector equality duty".

There are "differences between how students feel about the degree of sensitivity to their religion or belief in course content", the study says.

So there is "likely to be value in future investigation into the intersections between the curriculum, teaching and religion or belief", it adds.

The survey of staff at UK institutions - which had 3,077 responses and was "not intended to be statistically representative" - found that 46.8 per cent of respondents were Christian, with "no religion" (36.5 per cent) and "spiritual" (4.5 per cent) the next biggest groups.

However, the research "revealed relatively little evidence of incidents of direct discrimination or harassment on the grounds of religion or belief" and 93.4 per cent of staff said they had not suffered religious discrimination.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said that the study sought "to uncover so-called discrimination that respondents hadn't even thought of as a problem".

He added: "With the rising tide of students espousing creationism - and academics being increasingly reticent about challenging this - it would be far more constructive in our view if HE institutions, instead of paying greater attention to religion and belief, paid it less attention" and treated "all students as equal regardless of what beliefs they hold".

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