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Tackling religion and belief-related harassment in universities

31 Mar 2020 | Kristin Aune and Lucy Peacock Following a two-year project aimed at tackling religion and belief-related harassment in universities, researchers Professor Kristin Aune and Lucy Peacock reflect on their experiences and share five key learning points for others involved in supporting students.

Two years ago, we embarked upon a project to tackle religion-based hate incidents in higher education. The Office for Students (OfS) funded projects on this topic in 11 universities. Coventry University’s was one, and we set about understanding students’ perceptions of the issues, working with colleagues running the University’s new online harassment reporting system to make sure it worked well for religion and belief, running a campaign to encourage students to report anti-religious hate, and evaluating its success. Advance HE and the Church of England’s Education Office, as the largest provider of university chaplains, were partners and advisors.

Here are five things we learned are crucial:

1. Working across the university

We set up a monthly working group (made up of Students’ Union staff and sabbatical officers, harassment advisors, a chaplain and academics) which reported to a steering group of senior university managers. Students’ Unions (SU) are often passionate about equality and inclusion in HE, so they are ideal partners to tackle these issues. So are chaplains, who are often the first port of call for religious students seeking support. At Coventry, for example, the religion case manager we employed worked with the SU and chaplaincy team to run an interfaith event for student faith and belief societies.  


2. Using an online reporting system

There are cons to asking students to simplify what’s happened to them by ticking a box on an online form before they can speak to a member of staff who can support them in a more holistic way. But reporting gives universities information they can use to respond to the report and work towards better systems for dealing with future cases. Such reports can be used as part of the evidence submitted to the police if the victim chooses to report the incident. It’s a good idea to have a member of staff, such as a harassment advisor or case manager, whose job it is to handle reports that come in, supporting students and referring them to other university departments as appropriate.


3. Prevention and response go hand in hand

Some of the projects run by other universities in the OfS programme were focused on educating students about other religions and beliefs or promoting understanding between student groups who sometimes distrust or are hostile to each other. At the London School of Economics (LSE), there was a focus on growing student leadership programmes, including Interfaith Ambassadors, supporting students to run social action projects across faiths on campus in order to build relationships and transform attitudes. The project also involved taking feedback from students of faith through hackathons, and embedding religion and belief into school reporting structures so students felt listened to and supported throughout their time at LSE.  Solent University ran a project educating the University community about the complexity and diversity of religious and LGBTQ+ communities, producing a series of films about the intersection between religion and sexuality/gender identity.  Likewise, chaplains are engaged in a lot of interfaith work in universities. It’s better to prevent harassment happening by increasing understanding of diversity, but as that’s hard to fully achieve, you need a way of reporting harassment so this can be tackled.


4. Awareness-raising and training

Encourage staff and students to undertake training on understanding and responding to harassment, and consider making this mandatory. There are some good free examples highlighted in our guide to tackling religion and belief-related hate incidents or you can develop your own training with your equality and diversity or human resources department.

Increase confidence among students that the university will support them if they’re subjected to harassment or abuse. Work with your marketing department on a campaign that both reassures students and advises what they can do if they encounter harassment (for example, a QR code and the web address for the online reporting system). Use different methods, including posters or images on screens in university buildings (the most effective way to reach large numbers), and some in-person events, such as presentations to student representatives or stalls at welcome week events or during Hate Crime Awareness Week or Interfaith Week.  


5. Research and evaluation

Understanding students’ views and experiences at the outset is important, to shape interventions. Our survey showed that only a small minority of students (about 6% of those we surveyed) had experienced a hate incident related to religion and belief since they had been at the university. But students from marginalised groups: Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, and those from minority religious groups (especially Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) were more likely to have experienced a hate incident. This is supported by larger-scale research that Paul Weller from Coventry’s project team conducted for the Equality Challenge Unit (now Advance HE) nearly a decade ago, which showed that overall, 6% of students felt discriminated against or harassed because of their religion or belief. But for Jewish students (27%), Sikhs (17%) and Muslims (14%) the figure was much higher. Durham University’s research showed a similar pattern. This research shows that offering good support to marginalised students, for example, via the chaplaincy, university welfare services and the SU, is crucial.

And as global events, whether Brexit, the Israel-Palestine conflict or COVID-19, spark harassment peaks as perpetrators pick on vulnerable groups, it is vital that universities and their wider communities redouble their efforts to show their students their care and support for their diverse communities.


Download Coventry University’s guide Tackling Religion of Belief-Related Harassment and Hate Incidents: A guide for higher education providers  


Kristin Aune is Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University and co-editor (with J. Stevenson) of Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America (Routledge, 2017). Lucy Peacock is a fourth year PhD student at the centre and Research Assistant to this project.


Download Advance HE’s Religion and Belief in UK Higher Education report

Advance HE published guidance in 2018 on how to support the inclusion of staff and students of different faiths and beliefs. This includes practical issues like timetabling, catering, recruitment and inclusive teaching and learning. Download the guidance 

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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