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Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion

Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion

Universities are a symbolic battleground in debates about our values. But what is university like for students of different faiths or beliefs? This report explores faith and belief student societies, the challenges they face, and how they handle controversial issues like freedom of speech. (2019)

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Universities are a symbolic battleground in today’s debates about our shared values. They are accused on the one hand of restricting freedom of speech, and on the other of being hotbeds of extremism. Polling conducted by YouGov for Theos in January 2019 found that over half (52%) of British adults think freedom of speech is under threat in UK universities, and a sizable minority (29%) think ‘Islamic extremism’ is common in them. As the places where our future leaders develop their values, how universities accommodate debate and diversity is a critically important issue for the health of our society.

This report considers these difficult matters through the eyes of students who attend faith and belief societies on campus. It finds that tensions and controversies over religion or belief issues do sometimes arise on campus, but these are exceptions to the norm of peaceful campus relations between different groups.

Faith and belief societies play hugely important roles on campus in building community, supporting students pastorally and spiritually, and driving social action. However, they often face challenges which limit the contribution they can make to campus life, including their capacity to build bridges across different groups. While they are strong sources of ‘bonding social capital’, building bonds among their own members, they are less effective at being sources of ‘bridging social capital’ between groups. They need better resources and support from universities and students’ unions in order to meet their potential of being key sources of cohesion on campus.

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

In January 2019, Theos commissioned YouGov to conduct polling intended to gauge public views of universities. The full data tables can be found here.


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

This report was launched at a conference on Faith and Belief on Campus: Division and Cohesion, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, on 4th July 2019. 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. 

The authors: 

Simon Perfect is a Researcher at Theos, and a Tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His research interests include freedom of speech in universities, British Islam, and Religious Education in schools.

Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. His research interests include European politics and religion, Catholicism in the UK, chaplaincy, mental health and the faith–based charity sector.

Dr Kristin Aune is Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Her books include Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America (Aune & Stevenson, 2017, Routledge) and Christianity and the University Experience (Guest, Aune, Sharma & Warner, 2013, Bloomsbury).

This research was conducted in a partnership between Theos and Dr Kristin Aune of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. Theos is thankful for the very generous support of  the St Luke’s College Foundation, the Westhill Endowment, the Sir Halley Stewart Trust, the J W Laing Trust and Nick and Sue Olley, without whom this project would not have been possible. 

 Image by Devon Divine available from unsplash.com

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon joined Theos in 2014. He is a freelance researcher and a Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads campus–based and distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. @simplymrperfect

Extremism, Freedom of Speech, Secularism, Universities

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