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How faith friendly are UK universities?

How faith friendly are UK universities?
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If they were asked, I can guarantee that every single university in the UK would say that they are open, friendly and welcoming to students of all faiths and backgrounds. To say anything else would be totally unacceptable for a higher education institution in 2017.

But despite these confident assertions from the institutions, is this the reality for students of different faiths, or are universities more accepting of some faiths than others? I spoke to some current students in order to try and get to the heart of this issue:

Sam is a student at the University of Birmingham:

‘Birmingham has the chaplaincy, with chaplains of the Abrahamic religions, as well as the separate prayer room in the Guild (the students’ union).’

‘Birmingham also has a lot of halal options in the campus supermarkets, but I’ve not seen anything labelled as kosher – I’m not sure if this is down to a larger Muslim student population, a larger Muslim population across the city or whether it’s the result of expressed demand for halal foods above any other.’

‘The Guild sets up a large menorah which is lit across the period of Hanukkah and the university has events across the year to celebrate religious occasions and to educate on and discuss current issues within religion.’

‘The university condemns any open acts of religious discrimination, such as anti-Semitic graffiti which has been found on campus. I can’t speak from the perspective of a practising member of a faith, but the faith friendly values exercised by the university appear to be part of a collaborative effort from both the wider university and student groups.’

Nailya is a student at the University of Cambridge and describes herself as a ‘liberal Muslim’:

‘I think there are several issues. On the one hand, the university as an institution provides some space for religious people – there are societies, chapels, formals have halal and kosher food and so on. However, It is very heavily focused on Christianity – for example, each college has an Anglican chapel and the university has a Catholic chaplaincy, but no other faiths are represented.’

‘As a Muslim, if I wanted to go to a mosque, I’d have to use the town Islamic centre, which is far away and focuses on the community which has nothing to do with the university. At least a multi-faith room for the uni (preferably, for each college) would be nice. Personally, I have no problem using a Christian chapel for contemplation and prayer, but I would imagine many people would.’

‘The university as a student body is much more tolerant of liberal religious people like me than of those who follow their religion more literally – throughout my years here, the Christian Union was always seen as a bit ridiculous or even suspicious by the mainstream student body.’

‘Judaism is a separate issue, as the religion seems to be inseparable from political Jewishness and I believe there is quite a lot of anti-Semitism around, thinly veiled as ‘anti-Zionism’ to the point that the word Zionism in itself seems to be a grave insult.’

‘The political student body reinforces those things – the very strong pro-choice message often reads as a pro-abortion one, and I can imagine that being uncomfortable for anti-abortion people, especially women.’

‘Provisions for student mothers are abysmal as well, so the entire system basically encourages a pregnant woman to not keep the baby (both at undergraduate and graduate levels, for example, there are no maternity policies for PhD students).’

‘As long as faith conforms with the mainstream political opinions (pro-LGBT, pro-choice, anti-Israel etc), it seems to be welcome, but any deviation from the liberal dogma is frowned upon. It is not a huge problem for me personally (I agree with most liberal opinions around), but I can see that the unwillingness to have any sort of dialogue as damaging to someone’s welfare if they have different religious views.’

Holly Smith Editor

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