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Having faith in universities: what life is really like for students of religion or belief

Having faith in universities: what life is really like for students of religion or belief

Simon Perfect explores major new research by Theos looking at faith and belief societies in universities.

It can be hard to have faith in universities these days; but what’s it like to be of faith in them instead?

Bad puns aside (mea culpa), that’s the question we tackle in major new research from Theos, conducted in partnership with Dr Kristin Aune of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University: Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion. You can read the full report here and the executive summary here 

The premise of the research is that public faith in universities has indeed been shaken in recent years. They have become one of the main battlegrounds where claims and counter–claims are made as part of the wider culture wars about our common identities and values. In particular, they are caught in a double bind about religion or belief and freedom of speech. On the one hand they are accused of restricting freedom of speech for people with legitimate views; and on the other, they are accused of allowing freedom of speech to be abused by people with illegitimate or extreme (often extreme religious) views. These twin narratives are very popular – 52% of adults in Britain think freedom of speech is under threat in UK universities, and 29% think that ‘Islamic extremism’ is common in them, rising to over a third of people aged over 55.

We care about the state of universities because they are supposed to be bastions of the values underpinning liberal democracy, and indeed places where those values are transmitted to new generations. Our worry that they are becoming less free taps into fears that we are rapidly losing something of ourselves.

But much of the concern about universities, particularly when it comes to religion or belief issues, is based on assumption and rumour rather than evidence. Our research plugs the gap by focusing on faith and belief–related societies – like Christian Unions, Islamic Societies, and non–religious belief groups like Humanist Societies – and sheds light on how religion or belief issues play out on the ground in the university sector. By exploring the experiences, and challenges faced by, students of faith and belief, we can learn something about how our faith in universities can be restored.

Key findings

Our research involved qualitative research in 6 universities (including over 70 interviews with students of different religions and beliefs), as well as quantitative exercises to help us map the landscape of faith and belief societies nationally. We found that there are at least 888 of these societies on UK campuses, with an average of 6.3 in each institution. Christian Unions are the most common type of faith and belief society, followed by Islamic Societies; but there are now more independent Pentecostal / Charismatic / Evangelical Christian societies than Christian Unions, indicating a diversification of the Christian student landscape. It’s clear that a huge number of students are active in these societies – at least 18,000 are formal members, and many more attend their events without formally signing up.

So what is life like for the students who attend these societies? Here are our top five take–aways:

1)      Faith and belief societies play essential roles in universities, building community, supporting students pastorally and spiritually, and driving social action.

These societies make enormous contributions to campus life. There is huge diversity between different societies, with some being inward–facing (focusing on building community among their own members), and others looking outwards as well (engaging in the local community, or engaging in proselytism). Their activities include:

•            Providing space to practise, learn about and develop students’ religion or belief. This is particularly important for students of minority religions or beliefs who may not have easy access to religious institutions in their local area.

•            Building community and friendships. The societies can be crucial sites for combatting loneliness and supporting students with poor mental health.

•            Providing pastoral and spiritual support. Leaders in these societies sometimes act as informal chaplains, acting as mentors and providing a listening ear to other students facing problems.

•            Opportunities for women’s leadership and exploration of women’s issues. Women–led faith and belief societies act as critical sites for female empowerment, particularly for women of minority religious or ethnic backgrounds.

•            Giving back to the wider community. Faith and belief societies contribute hugely to wider society in terms of social action projects and charitable fundraising.

We were particularly struck by the societies’ work in pastoral support. For example, a President of a Sikh Society told us how he had been deeply lonely when he arrived at university, and only found friends and settled into campus life when he founded the society. Now he played a key role in supporting other members of the society – acting in effect as an informal chaplain, in a university which had no provision for Sikh chaplaincy:

I have people phoning me up, in the middle of the night, and they’re like, ‘This is what I’m going through today’. And they just need an ear to listen to. And I always try to open that up to them. I’m like, ‘Look spirituality or religion isn’t about judgment because God doesn’t really judge, it’s about us trying to listen to each other and really hear about what’s going on’. So if there’s anything to do with sex, drugs, violence at home, whatever, I’m here to listen to that so I can help you go to the right avenues about it. (Cathedrals Group university, Sikh Society member)

2)      The societies do great work, but many face obstacles which limit the contributions they can make to cohesion on campus. These include:

•            Patchy support from universities and students’ unions and patchy provision of needed space and resources. While some universities offer high quality facilities and resources to students of different religions or beliefs, others do not, with students feeling insufficiently accommodated. This is a particular concern for Jewish and Muslim students with some universities lacking suitable access to kosher or halal food or prayer facilities.

•            Organisational and funding issues. Committee members of the societies face significant pressures in terms of time and decision–making responsibilities which can sometimes be overwhelming. Some societies struggle to secure sufficient funds to carry out activities.

•            Internal divisions over sectarian, denominational or ethnic orientations. Some faith and belief societies are dominated by specific sects or ethnic groups, and students from outside those groups can feel excluded or assume (rightly or wrongly) that they would not be welcome.

•            A lack of capacity to undertake interfaith activities. Faith and belief societies are often willing to form collaborations with different societies, but logistical issues frequently prevent them from doing so. Societies that are primarily focused on faith–sharing are often less interested in forming collaborations with societies of different religions or beliefs.

3)      In general, universities are places where different religion or belief identities flourish harmoniously alongside each other. But religion or belief issues also underpin controversies on campus.

Controversies on campus, contrary to popular perception, are the exceptions not the norm. But they are still important to address. We found that:

•            Freedom of speech on campus is not in crisis, but a minority of students feel under pressure to self–censor their views. The crisis narrative about freedom of speech is largely overblown. Most students feel free to express their views. However, there are some factors which can chill freedom of speech on campus, including student activities (like intimidating behaviour of protesters) and structures like the Prevent Duty. Some students feel under pressure to self–censor their views, including students with socially (or politically) conservative views; students who support the policies of the State of Israel; and some (though not all) Muslim students who feel unfairly targeted by the Prevent Duty.

•            Extremism is not a significant issue in universities, but a significant proportion of Muslim students feel negatively affected by the Prevent Duty. In a NUS survey of 578 Muslim students conducted in 2018, a third felt they had been negatively affected by Prevent.

•            Gender and sexuality are still sources of tension among some societies. For example, some Christian Unions continue to have internal debates about whether women can be in charge. Some Muslim students (women as well as men) believe it is important to put limitations on interactions between the genders, but feel unable to practice gender segregation as they wish to because of a wider cultural disapproval of this.

•            Where faith–sharing activities occur, in general these are met with amicable or at least indifferent responses from other students, rather than hostility. In general, students adhere to the principle of tolerance and adopt a ‘live and let live’ approach to these activities, as long as they feel they are not manipulative. There is little consensus across faith and belief societies on the acceptability of proselytism.

•            A significant minority of Jewish and Muslim students feel vulnerable to Antisemitic and Islamophobic abuse. In the NUS survey of 578 Muslim students conducted in 2018, a third were worried about experiencing abuse on campus, with Muslim women who wore religious coverings feeling particularly vulnerable. In a NUS survey of 485 Jewish students conducted in 2016–17, 26% were similarly worried, and 23% said they had actually experienced abuse or a crime which they believed to be motivated by hostility to their Jewish identity. We heard examples of Antisemitic incidents on campus in our case studies.

To improve cohesion on campus, invest in faith and belief societies

These controversial issues are an important dynamic on campus life, but again such tensions seem to be quite rare. In general students of different religions and beliefs are very comfortable living alongside others with whom they may disagree with strongly. The popular image of students as ‘snowflakes’, who melt in the face of opposition or who cannot handle disagreement, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Ultimately, our findings show that faith and belief societies are often overlooked sources of cohesion and pastoral support on campus. But they need much greater institutional and organisational support from their students’ unions in order to flourish. Supporting those who nurture the faith of universities is an important route to building faith in universities.  

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings.

Posted 3 July 2019


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