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How do universities produce good citizens? For Mathew Guest, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, research on interfaith relations may have the answer.

Debates about the value of a university degree have again reached the headlines.

The prime minister’s repeated announcements that low value degrees will be subject to caps on student numbers (most recently in the King’s Speech) reflects a preoccupation with economic benefits, “value” here measured via metrics about graduate employment and earnings.

Critics have highlighted the risks of using such a blunt instrument. It could penalise students from minority backgrounds, who are highly represented on some of the courses targeted as ‘low value’, and stigmatise those same degree programmes, leading to a cycle of low recruitment and decline within universities already struggling.

And, as Polly Mackenzie writes, “it defines the value of higher education in purely financial terms”…and “it assumes the value of a degree accrues only to the person receiving it.”

Community benefits

This last point has particular importance, not least as the qualitative benefits of a university education are often obscured from view within a public discourse obsessed with metrics. And yet research exists that sheds light of those consequences of higher education that go beyond short term financial gain for the individual. For example, some on campus religious groups have made impressive progress in building mutual understanding, and interfaith initiatives have modelled how students from different backgrounds might relate to one another more positively.

It is difficult to imagine a more important life skill than the ability to get along with people different from ourselves. If this is a by-product of a university education, it is one of undeniable value, and underscores a case for universities serving the public good. Put simply, it highlights the capacity of universities to produce good citizens.

This admittedly sounds like the stuff of university prospectuses and EDI strategies: all fair and worthy but perhaps a bit idealistic. It also sits uncomfortably alongside recent reports of prejudice, discrimination and intolerance on UK campuses, whether directed at women, racial minorities or religious groups, not to mention how current industrial action has exposed tensions across the sector. If we ever believed in the utopian vision of the liberal campus, it is one that is difficult to square with the various ways in which universities have fallen short of our expectations.

Our own metric

But getting beyond the headlines, what does the evidence tell us? What impact does the university experience have on young people’s ability to get along, learn from those who are different, perhaps even critically examine their own assumptions about how the world works? Myself and a team of colleagues have been exploring these questions in a project on worldview diversity on UK campuses, asking how students of different perspectives relate to one another, and how universities might enable them to do so better.

We examined students’ positive engagement with religion and worldview diversity, using two national surveys and case studies of campus life. On a range of measures, the proportion of students affirming positive attitudes towards their engagement with others different from themselves increased during a 12 month period at university. For example, the proportion claiming that they try to build relationships with people who hold religious or nonreligious beliefs that they disagree with increased from 49 to 55 per cent. Those open to adjusting their beliefs as they learn from other people and have new life experiences grew from 71 to 77 per cent. Moreover, when we consider students’ attitudes to those with specific worldviews – whether Muslims, Jews or atheists, for example – the data show significant gains in students’ ability to relate well with all religious and worldview groups presented to them.

Getting better?

Our data demonstrates a statistically significant positive change, suggesting universities are environments in which students encounter diversity as a means of personal growth. The measures of change here are not dramatic – we couldn’t expect them to be over a 12 month period – but they are significant. They reinforce the common – but rarely evidenced – assumption that universities enable students to relate more positively to others different from themselves.

So, while our attention is drawn to stories of conflict, disagreement and hostility, these can overshadow a more dominant overall trend, one of students being equipped to build relationships across communities after they graduate. But what is most effective at fostering these outcomes? A key factor appears to be finding that sweet spot between sustaining safe spaces while enabling students to have their ideas and perceptions challenged. Students attach a great deal of importance to the need for sensitivity towards identity differences. But they also respond well to provocative encounters that challenge their pre-existing ideas; indeed, these are a key driver of students’ development of relational skills.

How can universities and policy makers learn from this? They should pay less attention to headlines and more to the evidence available; modelling a nuanced, data-driven approach is as important as teaching one. And identifying strategies for challenging students within a supportive, respectful environment would be one way of taking the evidence seriously. They shouldn’t underestimate the power of a university education to instil people skills well beyond module outcomes; quite aside from their social value, naming and celebrating these skills could seriously enhance the employability of graduating students.

And perhaps we should pause before writing off religious concerns as minority oddities. The interfaith movement may be niche, but there’s much we can learn from how interaction across religious difference produces a more rounded citizenship.

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