The way religion relates to politics and society is something that shapes many of the debates we find at the forefront of public policy and international relations in the modern world. Universities are no exception to this trend, and recent changes at regional UK institutions are highlighting religion’s place as a popular, and often controversial, topic for discussion.
The University of East Anglia in Norwich is reviewing its provision of prayer facilities, while the University of Manchester is utilising modern technology to create a new ways of providing for resident religious believers. Both of these examples, however, also offer a new question, and one which many are, quite plainly, too scared to address. Should universities be providing on-campus faith facilities at all?
The first European universities were founded by the Church, and existed primarily to provide education for the Christian clergy of the time. Historically, then, universities have been both religious and academic institutions. But this changed with the creation of University College London (UCL), England’s first secular university, which was founded in 1826.
UCL was the first higher education institution in the UK to welcome students of any religious origin through its doors, emphasising freedom of expression in terms of race and politics too.
In contrast to the label of ‘secular institution’, the School of Oriental and African Studies boasts one of the most international populations in the country with students from more than 130 different countries in attendance, including believers from almost every religion. It describes itself as “a community of people where individuals are free to live out their faith in an open and encouraging environment”.
Both institutions offer a basic multi-faith chaplaincy, and, other than this, invite students to explore facilities available within the local community rather than offering extensive facilities on campus. Considerable religious communities for almost every religion exist in every university town and city in the UK. So is there any need for universities to be providing full facilities for any religion on campus?
One of the main arguments in the campaign against the UEA Islamic centre closure has been related to prayer space for Muslim students. But in my experience, it’s not uncommon to see people praying in the streets in Middle Eastern countries, and in New York City, in public parks. It’s possible to pray almost anywhere.
“It’s true that for Muslims, the entire world is a masjid [mosque or prayer space], but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to pressurise students to pray outside in the rain just because it’s an option,” says Hans Hannes, a member of the UEA Islamic Society. “And we don’t live in a country where social order permits a person to pray almost anywhere. Maybe the UK isn’t ready yet for us to pray in masses at the local shopping mall.”
Each religion has requirements specific to its belief-system – where Muslims must pray five times per day, Christians must attend religious services on Sundays, and Jews celebrate the weekly Sabbath with family and friends. But these kinds of requirements can easily be met off campus.
I am not arguing against individual rights to follow religion; rather, that religion’s place should be in local communities and university societies instead of competing with the academic elements of university, particularly in terms of funding. While I would never argue against people’s freedom to practice religion freely in a safe and open environment, as a non-believer, I find myself questioning whether faith requires specialist facilities or direct financial investment from universities. At a time when there are so many cuts being made to the education sector, shouldn’t universities be funding education over everything else?
If UK universities turned their chaplaincies into reflection areas and began to approach education with a secular attitude – rather than some kind of misplaced guilt or an embarrassed dedication to multiculturalism – religion would still thrive.
Societies and groups allow anybody with a particular belief, interest or lifestyle to engage with like-minded peers. I would be happy to see any kind of faith facilities on university campuses phased out, and for religion to find its place in its local community of believers instead of within the context of education.