How important is religious support in higher education?
Chaplains provide valuable support to UK university students. Source: Karl Fredrickson/Unsplash

With more than half of the UK population professing no faith, it’s easy to assume that religion doesn’t have much space in the university setting.

But a new report has shown that there is a place for religion, and it’s commonly reserved for the assumed secular pursuit of truth. Chaplains – representatives of religious or belief organisations attached to a secular institution – were found to play an “integral” role in many universities.

These individuals contribute to student support beyond religious activities. Most work done by chaplains focuses on pastoral activities like counselling, including for those who claim they are not of any faith.

Writing in The Conversation, co-author Mathew Guest said: “Our research found that each year, university chaplains contribute around £4.5m of volunteer labour to the higher education sector. Volunteer university chaplains – which make up over 40 percent of the total – give around 3,500 hours of free labour each week.”

The report describes this as “a significant gift to universities by religion and belief group”.

Chaplaincy has its origins in Christianity, where clergies used to be placed in non-parish ministries. Attached to institutions like prisons, hospitals, schools, universities and the armed forces, Chapels serve the religious needs of the people within these places. In higher education, six in ten universities house Christian chaplains.

But things are getting more diverse. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and more recently, humanist chaplains can be found on campuses across the UK. One in five university chaplaincies are called “multi-faith,” according to the report, increasing from one in ten in 2007.

“This reflects universities’ increasing desire to meet the religious needs of students from diverse religious backgrounds, perhaps in response to the Equality Act 2010, which treats religion or belief as an equality issue and ‘protected characteristic’ equal to gender, ethnicity, disability and others,” the report explained.

But the lion’s share of chaplaincy work still falls within Christianity. They lead these new multi-faith centres but the report notes that while they commit to inter-faith and multi-faith work, they are also committed to representing their own religious organisation.

Supporting students is their primary goal

The majority of chaplains name pastoral work as their main aim. This includes supporting students on a personal basis, promoting their well-being and helping with their problems. Only one sixth saw their work as religious.

Most use “generic ‘secular’ language in their role, which leads the report to form a hypothesis that there is a “pressure to conform to the perceived expectations of university managers who are likely to understand the language of student support but not the language of theology and belief”.

Both universities and students agree chaplains bring something “unique” and seen as “valuable colleagues”. In the previous 12 months, half of the chaplains surveyed received increased support or investment in their work from the universities. They have also contributed to organisational practice and collaborated with universities’ professional support departments.

“I think we have been a much more open and accepting university because our chaplain has brought that wider community and has taught tolerance and respect.”

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

Cairo University strikes ‘religion’ field off all official paperwork

Harvard offers free online course to teach the world about religion