University Students

Three-fifths of UK university students claim to belong to some religion, but most do not regard themselves as particularly religious. And although three-quarters accept that there are clear ethical principles differentiating right from wrong, only one-third think they should always be applied regardless of circumstances.

These are the headline findings from a multinational survey of university students published by Spain’s BBVA Foundation on 2 December. Face-to-face interviews were conducted by Ipsos MORI between March and June 2010.

The sample comprised 3,000 students who had completed at least two years of higher education study in each of six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. The aggregate sample of 18,000 was drawn from 35 to 50 universities per country.

The proportion of UK university students belonging to a religion (60%) was much the same as in Spain, more than in France (50%) but lower than in Germany, Italy and Sweden (70%).

On a religiosity scale ranging from 0 (not religious at all) to 10 (very religious), UK students averaged 3.5, some way behind their counterparts in Italy (5.1) but ahead of France and Germany (3.4), Spain (3.2), and Sweden (2.7).

UK students were most inclined to discern ethical guidelines about what is right and wrong, 76% compared with 71% in Spain, 66% in Sweden, 64% in Italy, 55% in Germany and 49% in France.

Italy (47%) headed the list of students thinking that ethical principles should always be applied, regardless of circumstances, followed by Germany (40%), Spain (39%), UK (33%), France (31%), and Sweden (15%).

Swedish students (76%) were most likely to argue that those principles should be applied flexibly, in accordance with the circumstances of the time. 61% of UK students took the same line, with Spain on 57%, France on 53%, Germany on 48%, and Italy on 43%.

Attitudes to seven moral situations were also assessed, with students from the UK and all other countries finding them generally acceptable. Living as a couple without getting married was regarded most tolerantly by UK students, but even abortion, which scored lowest, achieved 6.5 on an acceptability scale of 0 (totally unacceptable) to 10 (totally acceptable).

However, religious affiliation did have an impact on moral attitudes. Thus, whereas the acceptability of abortion among UK students was 7.7 for those who did not belong to a religion, it fell to 5.6 for religious affiliates. The corresponding scores for the acceptability of a homosexual couple adopting a child were 7.5 and 5.9 respectively.

A report on the survey is available on the BBVA website at:

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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