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Islam and UK Higher Education: Re/presenting Islam on Campus

This research, funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), was based on a national survey of more than 2,000 students at UK universities. It also consisted of qualitative research at six universities, including interviews with about 300 students, academics and other staff; staff and student focus groups; and observations of classes and campus events. This is the largest study yet of Islam and UK higher education.

Major findings and recommendations

Students reported that interfaith campus friendships are positive and helpful for counteracting media coverage. About a quarter of students (24 per cent) in the 2,000 plus survey stated that their main source of information about Islam was the media, compared with 16 per cent when asked about religion in general. This suggests that perceptions of Islam may be especially vulnerable to being distorted by media bias and inaccurate reporting.

The counter terror Prevent Duty Guidance seeks to stop students being drawn into terrorism by, for example, imposing limitations on events featuring allegedly extremist speakers. Students believe that extremism is a risk on other campuses but not their own. The research team discovered that the Prevent Duty Guidance has led to wariness among Muslim and non-Muslim students about participating in research about religion, freedom of speech and campus life. Many Muslim students report that they modify their behaviour as a result of the government’s Prevent strategy by self-censoring or disengaging from campus life and their studies for fear of being stigmatised, labelled an extremist or subjected to discrimination.

70% of survey respondents agreed that Muslims make a valuable contribution to British life, yet the study found evidence of prejudice against Muslims on some campuses, including among some university staff, as well as evidence of direct discrimination, intra- and interfaith tensions and racism. Hijabs and beards were discussed often by non-Muslims during interviews, and were seen by Muslims as markers that could lead to their being viewed as suspect. The national survey found that in excess of two-fifths (43 per cent) of students – including more than 15 per cent of Muslim students – think that Islam discriminates against women.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of university modules on Islam and Muslims are taught at just 20 universities. The research team believe Islamic studies could be a force for good and replace prejudicial ideas about Islam. Universities, particularly those with the most diverse student cohorts, should consider providing cultural and religious awareness training for new staff and students, as well as digital literacy classes.

These are issues of growing and urgent importance because the proportion of Muslim students in UK universities will rise as a result of growth in the British Muslim population and of a potential increase in non-European Union students after Brexit.

Read more about the Re/presenting Islam on Campus Project here:

RESEARCH TEAM: Professor Alison Scott-Baumann, SOAS; Professor Mathew Guest, Durham; Dr Shuruq Naguib, Lancaster; Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, Coventry; Dr Aisha Phoenix, SOAS and Kareem Darwish, SOAS

This blog was written by Professor Alison Scott-Baumann, Professor of Society and Belief, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)