Fresh empirical insights into the state of religion in UK higher education are offered in a new report commissioned by the Equality Challenge Unit, undertaken on its behalf by researchers at the University of Derby, and launched on 11 July.
The topic has assumed increasing importance in recent years, as a result of the diversification of the religious background of students and staff (partly reflecting greater religious pluralism in the UK, and partly a consequence of internationalization).
Additionally, the Equality Act 2010 established religion or belief as an equality strand in mainland Britain, thereby imposing duties on higher education institutions and necessitating a stronger evidence base to demonstrate compliance.
Paul Weller, Tristram Hooley and Nicki Moore, Religion and Belief in Higher Education: The Experiences of Staff and Students explores four main aspects of the subject: participation and access, religious observance, discrimination and harassment, and good relations.
A mixed methodology was employed for the study, including – of particular interest to BRIN users – a national online survey of UK higher education academic and support staff (n = 3,077 from 131 institutions) and students (n = 3,935 from 101 institutions) between 28 October 2010 and 3 January 2011.
These ‘samples’ were essentially self-selecting, recruited through ‘key gatekeepers’, national networks and various online publicity mechanisms. Although, in certain respects, their profiles were ‘not far removed’ from Higher Education Statistics Authority data, there is no real means of assessing their typicality in religious terms.
The figures from this research are thus described by the authors as ‘indicative’ and presented with a heavy health warning: ‘It is important to note that this survey was not intended to be statistically representative, as in higher education there is a current lack of the data that would allow the necessary sampling to take place.’
‘Because of the impossibility of constructing a precise sample, readers should not attempt to extrapolate figures and percentages given in this report across the sector as a whole.’ With this significant caveat, we may note some of the key quantitative findings:
- 47% identified themselves as Christians, 37% as of no religion, 5% as spiritual, 3% as Muslims, and 9% as of other faiths or beliefs
- 43% said that religion was in the foreground of their life, 23% in the background, and 32% that it did not feature in their life
- One-half had no recollection of how, if at all, their institutions monitored staff religion or belief
- 20% indicated that they would be uncomfortable about disclosing their religion to their university, rising to 34% of pagans, 33% of spiritual, and 28% of no religion
- 11% (22% of Muslims and Buddhists) were members of a religion or belief society in their institution
- 94% felt that they had not been discriminated against or harassed because of their actual or perceived religion or belief since 2003, the 6% with negative experiences (including 18% of Muslims and 10% of Jews) attributing them in roughly equal measures to immediate colleagues, other staff, and students
- 79% felt comfortable expressing their religion or belief identity in the workplace
- 73% had never been approached by anyone with the intention of bringing them over to their religious point of view
- 53% agreed and only 8% disagreed that their institution valued the religion or belief identities of its employees, the rest being neutral
- 44% described themselves as Christians, 31% as of no religion, 9% as Muslims, 5% as spiritual, and 11% as of other faiths or beliefs
- 49% said that religion was in the foreground of their life, 27% in the background, and 23% that it did not feature in their life
- Two-fifths had no recollection of how, if at all, their institutions monitored student religion or belief
- 16% indicated that they would be uncomfortable about disclosing their religion to their university, with twice this number for Buddhists and those calling themselves spiritual
- 22% considered that their course content was presented in a way which was sensitive to their religion or belief, 10% disagreed (15% among Muslims and 13% for Christians), 20% were neutral, and 48% held that their religion was irrelevant to the course
- 23% stated that the teaching on their course was conducted in a way which was sensitive to their religion or belief, 11% disagreed (16% of Muslims and 15% of Christians), 20% were neutral, and 47% argued that their religion was irrelevant to the course
- 44% considered that campus facilities for people of their religion were adequate, 15% inadequate, with the remainder unsure
- 27% were members of a religion or belief society in their institution, rising to 63% of Jews, 48% of Muslims and 44% of Sikhs
- 94% felt that they had not been discriminated against or harassed because of their actual or perceived religion or belief, but Jews (27%), Sikhs (17%) and Muslims (14%) reported much higher levels of discrimination
- 86% agreed and just 11% disagreed that harassment on the grounds of religion was dealt with as a serious disciplinary offence by their institution
- 68% felt their university was understanding or tolerant towards students with a specific religion, a mere 3% describing it as ignorant or intolerant (the rest being neutral or stating no opinion)
- 90% felt comfortable expressing their religion or belief to friends, 72% to fellow students, and 69% to personal academic tutors
- 54% had never been approached by anyone with the intention of bringing them over to their religious point of view, with one-fifth having been approached and feeling uncomfortable or harassed as a result
The main research report, Religion and Belief in Higher Education, is available to download from:
Raw topline data and questionnaires will be found in Nicki Moore, Tristram Hooley and Kieran Bentley, Religion and Belief in Higher Education: The Experiences of Staff and Students – Appendix 2, Survey Data, which can be found at:
Also on this Derby site are Appendix 1, which deals with the project approach, and Appendix 3, which is a literature review.
Readers of this post may like to consult another recent post, on British Muslim students’ experience of higher education, which is at: