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Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion

Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion

On 4th July 2019, Theos organised a conference explored religion or belief in universities and issues like freedom of speech, proselytism and secularism, and launched our research in this area.

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Universities are a symbolic battleground in today’s debates around our shared values and identities. They are accused on the one hand of restricting free speech, and on the other of being hotbeds of extremism. They are often seen as secular, yet are places where faith and belief groups flourish. What can we make of these contradictions, and what is the reality on the ground?

On 4th July 2019, Theos hosted a day conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, to launch a major new research report we produced in partnership with Coventry University: Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion. This report sets out the findings of our research with faith and belief–related student societies in six universities across the UK. We explore the challenges these societies face on campus and the roles they play in fostering good relations on campus. We have also conducted the first mapping exercise of faith and belief–related student societies across the country.

 A summary of the report and its recommendations can be found here.

This conference brought together academics, students and staff working in student services and students’ unions to consider how faith and belief issues shape campus dynamics; the challenges that people of different faiths and beliefs face on campus; and what changes are needed in universities to support them better. 

In the evening, a keynote lecture on freedom of speech in universities was delivered by David Isaac CBE, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). In February 2019, the EHRC published new guidance for universities on managing freedom of speech on campus.


As part of this research, we asked members of the general public for their views about universities and controversial issues like freedom of speech:

In this video, the report authors share their key findings. You can download their key findings presentation slides here.

In this video, David Isaac CBE, the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, delivers a keynote speech on freedom of speech in universities. 

Keynote speech: David Isaac CBE, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. 

Freedom of Speech in Education: The Foundation of an Effective Society

Earlier this week, the Pope announced that the nineteenth century English Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman would be declared a saint. Yet Cardinal Newman was not so revered during his lifetime.

Indeed, after much criticism of his theological writing and teaching, he had to resign from his post at Oxford University in 1845. Why? He had decided to become a Catholic, and you might be surprised to learn that no Catholic, indeed no –one from any faith other than the Church of England, was allowed to study or teach at English universities until 1871.

Yet remarkably, Newman did not let his experience at Oxford make him bitter. He spent the rest of his life fighting anti–Catholic prejudice in British society, pastoring in Birmingham and elsewhere, and helping to found schools and a university in Ireland, which eventually became University College Dublin. His book, The Idea of the University, is a robust argument that higher education institutions should be places committed to differing views and free enquiry, because he was  convinced that ”religion and knowledge are not opposed to each  other… they are indivisibly connected”.

Freedom of expression is one of the key foundations on which our society is built.

Our neighbourhoods are increasingly made up of people from different communities – and with different views and perspectives – living side–by–side each other.

And for society to function as a whole we must ensure that our foundations are based on the common values of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect.

To achieve this ambition – in an increasingly diverse world – we must recognise and embrace difference – in the way we live, the way we practise our faith or no–faith, and how we express our ideas and opinions.

How we participate in dialogue and listen to each other is the key to building a coherent society. It permits greater understanding of different views and lifestyles and reduces harmful attitudes and prejudice from becoming entrenched. We must stop building walls around our own communities that create safe – but isolated – spaces and rather look beyond our own narrow concerns and interests – to participate as citizens in the society in which we all live. And the earlier we can begin this process the better – and this is where education plays a vital role.

Schools, colleges and universities don’t just teach people how to pass exams. They also help people grow as individuals – and prepare us to be good citizens.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about my own experience when I left rural Wales as a young man to go to university.

It was only at university that as a young gay man I met people like me – who were also gay – or people who were supportive of my decision to be open about my sexuality – even in the late 1980s when it wasn’t as fashionable as it is today! I’m pleased to say that the community I developed helped me grow as a person and become more confident – and it was because of that confidence that I was able to engage more widely with people – even those who disagreed with me or felt that my decision to live as an openly gay man was contrary to their faith. 

So I believe that students go to university to explore new ideas, to meet new and different people, to become more independent – and, of course, to pass exams! But they need to find support if they are part of a minority – and once they have that support my own experience tells me that they can engage more widely with others – some of whom may hold different views.

And so like a society without walls – universities must be a safe place for students and staff to come together to debate and challenge one another and – equally importantly – for all students to practise their religions and beliefs. But to feel safe in doing so.

The view that I want to share with you this evening, is that so far as I’m concerned – so far as the EHRC is concerned – faith and belief groups are in my view, an asset to universities and society and must be properly supported. They provide the safe haven where students can engage with people who hold similar beliefs views and but they also provide a platform from which those students can go out and engage with others – even those who hold differing views. 

Having read the excellent report on Faith and Belief published by Theos today, I agree with its recommendations that there should be better support for faith and belief student societies from universities and students’ unions.

But it is equally important that faith and belief groups don’t just turn inwards. I would encourage more increased collaboration with faith and other groups and for them to be in dialogue with students’ unions – even if that is not always easy.  In my view this is the key to understanding what else is happening in 21st century Britain and is how the cause of academic freedom is best served.

And that is why I believe higher education institutions have a responsibility to be bastions of debate and defenders of free expression.

I know that you touched on this today, but at times this can be a minefield for educators. We are living in an age of hypersensitivity – or perceived hypersensitivity where it is increasingly easier for people to feel offended – or others to be worried about protecting minority groups. 

Social media often makes things worse and it is easier than ever for people to group together to block out what they consider to be opposing ideas. To live and debate within walls – or echo chambers. All of which affects our ability to engage – and ultimately to empathise – with people who hold different views to our own. I was really pleased to see that the Church of England social media guidelines, which were issued this week, encourage greater engagement but obviously on a respectful basis.

My experience is that increasingly life has become more difficult, debate has become less nuanced and as a result you are either  if you are for one thing then you are against something else.

And I believe that it is this kind of polarisation that has led to debate being closed down, including within universities. This, of course, is not to say that balancing rights and obligations isn’t complex, of course it is. And I’m often asked about which protected characteristic the EHRC promotes over others. There is no hierarchy of rights and establishing the right approach can be challenging. We need to look at each situation on a case by case basis.

It is against that complicated background and our desire for increased freedom of expression that we have seen the stories reported in the media of speakers being no–platformed at universities because of their controversial views and the kind of silencing that people are concerned about.

Can I say that I think that the problem has often been overstated – and EHRC research suggests that the incidences of no–platforming are not nearly as common as the media would have us believe. 

What we do know is that the education sector has asked for help and to have clear guidance on how to navigate this difficult terrain. This view was also shared by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We were very pleased to work with a whole group of organisations – government, DFE, students unions – to come up with some clear guidance on how we navigate this difficult area.

Our abiding concern was to ensure that universities and students know their responsibilities and feel confident to promote respectful and open debate – and to ensure that they comply with existing legal obligations to promote freedom of speech. It’s very easy to forget that that’s actually what the current law requires of universities As George Orwell said:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

If we can’t proceed on that basis and using that as a default in universities, where can we promote freedom of speech? So our guidance developed 5 core ideas to ensure that freedom of speech in higher education is upheld at every opportunity.

·      The first is that everyone has the right to free speech within the law.

·      The second is that higher education providers should always work to widen debate and challenge, never to narrow it.

·      Our third core principle is that decisions about speakers and events should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression.

·      Fourthly whilst we acknowledge that peaceful protest is a protected form of expression, protest should not be allowed to shut down debate or infringe the rights of others.

·      And finally, freedom of expression should not be abused for the purpose of unchallenged hatred or bigotry. Balanced and respectful debate should always be the aim.

The default in our view is that considering all the legal duties carefully, events should be allowed to go ahead wherever possible.

And with this in mind, the guidance sets out some practical examples of what can be done to uphold freedom of speech whilst ensuring that debate is respectful.

The guidance also clarifies the limited occasions that freedom of expression can be restricted – for example if the content of a speech amounts to unlawful harassment or involves the promotion of terrorism. Or if public order offences are likely to be committed.

We also give specific examples of managing debate through the appointment of an independent chair – to ticketing and filming an event to deter the use of unlawful speech as well as requesting copies of promotional materials in advance of the event. The development of a clear policy setting out the principles of respectful discourse for speakers is also very desirable.

One of the difficult areas in this debate is in relation to the position of students’ unions where no platforming and non–engagement policies have often been the cause of huge controversy.

So as you will know the National Union of Students has a formal No Platform policy that prevents certain organisations speaking at their events or from officers speaking at events attended by these groups. These organisations are known to have racist or fascist views.

It is important to say that it is lawful for the NUS to adopt and enforce this policy for its own activities, but it cannot and should not be used to impose restrictions on other student societies or across campus.

It is important to say that it is lawful for the NUS to adopt and enforce this policy for its own activities, but it cannot and should not be used to impose restrictions on other student societies or across campus.

Individual students’ unions can adopt their own policies and this is where we would encourage these students’ unions to follow our guidance and proceed on the basis of allowing events to go ahead – liaising closely with the university in question.  You will also know that the university must take reasonably practical steps to ensure that freedom of speech is protected within the law.

Many of the practical recommendations in the Theos report are very helpful and, if implemented, they also overlap with many of the EHRC recommendations, and I believe would result in improved dialogue and understanding between faith groups and universities and students’ unions.

And while I am on the topic of students’ unions, I would like to take the opportunity to say that the EHRC believes that promoting freedom of expression within universities also extends to the affiliation of faith groups to students’ unions too. There have been a few incidents, thankfully quite rare, where there have been attempts to prevent Christian Unions or pro–life societies or Jewish groups from affiliating with a student union, hiring rooms in students’ union buildings or participating in Fresher’s Fairs because the students’ union objects to their beliefs or takes a different position on issues such as abortion or Israel–Palestine. This is not consistent with ensuring freedom of speech on campus, and the EHRC guidance makes clear that it should not happen.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which restrictions on free speech are legitimate.

Our guidance is very clear on the situations where certain forms of expression become hate crimes that incite violence, hatred or discrimination against other people and groups. Sadly we have seen a huge increase in the incidence of hate crimes in this country – especially in relation to antisemitism and islamophobia. I know that these can be just as much of a problem in university life as they are outside higher education and it has resulted in huge anxiety (and self–censoring) amongst certain communities – and we know that these prejudices are also played out on university campuses.

And this is something that EHRC is playing its part to address.

As you might be aware, the EHRC is coming to the end of our inquiry into racism at universities. It’s a piece of our work that has captured the attention of students and staff.

And while the focus is racial harassment, we recognise that race and religion are closely linked; especially in terms of how people experience racial harassment and the way racial prejudice is sometimes expressed. The good news is that we have received the highest amount of responses to any of our calls for evidence and to me this indicates the extent of the concern about the issue.

And finally we cannot discuss religion or belief without talking about the Prevent Duty.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into free speech in universities found that students may be self–censoring as a result of the Prevent Duty.

Our guidance gives clear advice on universities’ obligations relating to Prevent, including the type of actions that could be taken to mitigate the risk of people being drawn into terrorism.

Higher education providers should ensure that the way they comply with the duty does not lead to students or staff feeling uncomfortable in expressing their political or religious views on campus. As the Theos report suggests, universities must ensure that in fulfilling their duties in relation to Prevent they balance these with their duties to uphold freedom of speech.

As you probably know, the Court of Appeal found that wording in the guidelines produced by Prevent, designed to tackle radicalisation on campus, went too far in curbing freedom of speech.

The changes to the guidance are likely to be editorial, but reflect the need for nuance and careful consideration in balancing rights and obligations around freedom of speech.

But it’s important to acknowledge that these are not just issues for universities – especially at a time of real uncertainty and change in our country. You will all have seen the increasingly ugly exchanges outside Parliament and be aware of the toxic abuse of some people on social media. All of these things sadly fuel the antagonism and growing polarisation of views in society.

Which brings us back to my opening comments: we don’t have to agree with what people say within the law – but we should always ensure that everyone can speak freely – even if their views or beliefs are unpopular.

I fear that to proceed in any other way means that intolerance and divisions will become more even extreme and entrenched. 

And at a time when there appears to be less tolerance and acceptance of people of faith it is more important than ever that all parts of our society can express their views.  

Only by embracing the diversity of all views and traditions can we properly prepare students to be full participants as citizens of 21st century Britain. 

A country that will in my view become even stronger and more vibrant if we acknowledge our complex history and the differences that exist between individual communities – and embrace them by listening to each other and engaging in respectful discussion and dialogue. 


Panel speakers

  • Keynote evening lecture: David Isaac CBE, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
  • Dr Seth Anziska, Mohamed S. Farsi–Polonsky Lecturer in Jewish–Muslim Relations, University College London
  • Professor Kristin Aune, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University
  • Giles Cattermole, London Team Leader, Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF)
  • Professor Gwen Griffiths–Dickson, founder of the Lokahi Foundation
  • Revd Cassandra Howes, Coordinating Chaplain, University of Bedfordshire
  • Mohammed Uthman Isahaq, student at Queen Mary University of London, ParliaMentor 2018–19 with Faith & Belief Forum
  • Daniel Kosky, Campaigns Organiser, Union of Jewish Students
  • Dr David Muir, Senior Lecturer in Public Theology & Community Engagement, University of Roehampton
  • Simon Perfect, Researcher, Theos; Teaching Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies
  • Ben Ryan, Head of Research, Theos
  • Professor Alison Scott–Baumann, Department of Religions and Philosophies, School of Oriental and African Studies
  • Alamgir Sheriyar, Prevent FE / HE Coordinator for the South East, Department for Education
  • Jaspreet Singh, British Organisation of Sikh Societies (BOSS)
  • Hannah Timson, Emeritus President, Humanist Students

Image by Jacob Lund from shutterstock.com available under licence

The Theos Team

The Theos Team

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