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Education: What Muslim students can teach Christians

24 September 2021

Mathew Guest looks at evidence of inclusivity and openness to new ideas


Muslim students are more likely to view university as an opportunity to develop one’s faith in new ways

Muslim students are more likely to view university as an opportunity to develop one’s faith in new ways

REFLECTING on more than a decade’s sociological research into religion on university campuses, I am increasingly unsettled by the question of inclusivity. Who belongs on campus, and who does not? Who is made to feel marginal, strange, or “other”?

Despite their reputation as guardians of wokeness, universities are not always experienced as inclusive by their students. Recent academic studies have alerted us to some worrying patterns of discrimination and exclusion.

Racism and misogyny are no longer assumed to stop at the campus gates, and universities across the country have had to reflect on the extent to which they uphold rather than challenge embedded prejudices. On this matter, religion plays an ambiguous part.

On the one hand, there is a persistent assumption that higher education unsettles or even undermines faith, through dislocation from established communities, exposure to moral permissiveness, or the acquisition of knowledge that proves incompatible with religious beliefs.

There is some truth in this, and there are university employees who take religion to be not only incompatible with serious learning, but as having no legitimate place on the university campus. These “hard secularists” have their equivalents in the student body, and variations on the humanist/secular/atheist society have made impassioned, public attacks on religion on a range of campuses in recent years.

On the other hand, universities have maintained cultures of religious inclusivity to a degree that would be difficult to find elsewhere in British society. Pockets of anti-religious zealotry are the exception rather than the norm.

Most now seem to accept that matters of faith form part of the cultural diversity that enriches the university campus. This has certainly been reflected in the empirical research that I’ve conducted, alongside various colleagues, among university staff and students across the UK higher-education sector.

In a national survey of students conducted in 2017, for example, three-quarters agreed that religion could be an important source of moral values, even among non-religious people. Faced with the viewpoint that universities are secular spaces that function better when matters of faith are excluded from them, fewer than one third of students agreed. The notion that higher education and religion are incompatible appears to be breaking down.

This is reflected in a growth of on-campus cultural diversity. As the higher-education sector has become increasingly marketised, institutions have sought recruitment among high-fee-paying international students. Numbers of students from the Far East have increased dramatically in recent years: those from mainland China are now the largest cohort among international students (more than 100,000).

Religious diversity also mirrors the wider UK context. Almost one tenth of students are Muslims (almost a quarter of a million individuals); most are British Muslims, with ten per cent from overseas.


ALMOST 90 per cent of students agree that the experience of university encourages respect and mutual understanding. The actual campus experience of students, however, is less clear-cut. The university experience is radically different depending on whether you happen to be studying at Aberdeen, Aston, Aberystwyth, or Arden (the latter one of the several private providers that have recently entered the sector).

Location is a significant factor. As I said, almost one tenth of students are Muslims, but they are not evenly distributed across the UK sector. A strikingly high proportion of Muslim students choose to study at a university close to their parental home: fewer than a quarter leave home to study, compared with two-thirds of Christian students and more than three-quarters of non-religious students.

A second factor is history. By the most optimistic estimates, Christians make up just under half of the student population; some evidence suggests that the number is closer to one third. Either way, only a minority of these are regular churchgoers.

And yet Christian ritual and symbolism — if not necessarily traditional piety — are pervasive in some of our oldest universities. At my own university, graduation ceremonies take place in Durham Cathedral. Almost two-thirds of all university chaplains are affiliated to a Christian denomination. And 15 universities make up the Cathedrals Group: institutions that were originally set up as vocational training colleges and that retain (to varying degrees) an ethos that reflects their Christian foundation.

The institutional advantage granted to Christianity does not prevent some Christian students’ feeling marginalised. The most popular student churches are those that preach an Evangelical message, sometimes including moral injunctions at odds with the more permissive norms of student culture. Some even preach a wariness of conventional scholarship on the grounds that it undermines biblical truth.

A guarded engagement with study feeds the compartmentalisation of knowledge I have seen sometimes among religious students over the past decade. The claims of faith and the arguments of academia may clash, but only if they are brought into intellectual conversation. One way in which to navigate the university experience while upholding a conservative faith is to keep such things separate. Rehearsing arguments in order to pass exams is not the same as integrating those ideas into one’s thinking.

Interestingly, this approach seems much more common among Christian students than among Muslims. A recent survey that I administered compared the experiences of both communities, and some unexpected comparisons emerged. Compared with their Christian peers, Muslim students are more likely to view university as a valuable opportunity to develop one’s faith in new ways; to view religious groups as making a valuable contribution to the life of their university; and to believe that universities should incorporate religion or faith into their vision for education.

And 79 per cent of Muslim students say that the experience of university should encourage critical thinking about matters of faith. The figure is 71 per cent among Christian students.

Muslim students seem especially open to bringing their faith and university study into constructive conversation, a confidence that is much more muted among Christians. This confounds a common stereotype, sometimes upheld by university leaders and public commentators: that Muslims are prone to sectarianism and that their faith impairs their ability to think critically.

In many ways, Muslim students seem more comfortable with university study than their Christian peers. Why this should be is uncertain, but it does warn against easy assumptions about the compatibilities between a life of faith and a life of study.


Dr Mathew J. Guest is Professor in the Sociology of Religion and head of the department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. His latest book (co-written with Alison Scott-Baumann, Shuruq Naguib, Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, and Aisha Phoenix) is Islam on Campus: Contested identities and the cultures of higher education in Britain, is published by OUP at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50); 978-0-19284-467-5.

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