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Six young adults sitting round a desk chatting, smiling and laughing. In the background are shelves of books

Challenging students about their assumptions and values makes them better equipped to engage with the challenges of living in a diverse society, writes Professor Mathew Guest, Professor of the Sociology of Religion and Head of our Department of Theology and Religion.

The UK university campus is not a happy place. Student discontent arises in response to financial crises, disruption of studies due to industrial action and sometimes emerging disputes even get political, putting to bed those mid-1990s rumours that the spirit of dissent that beset campuses during the revolutionary 1960s had died with New Labour. But the discontent we witness now is quite distinct, driven more by identity politics than party politics, directed at ideologies rather than governments, often more factional than unifying. Students are not bound together in pursuit of a common cause but engaged in a multitude of campaigns that appear to provoke perennial anxiety rather than the exuberant optimism of a new generation.

Reflecting on the current malaise, one colleague commented that we have lost the ability to “disagree well”. I’m not sure if we ever had this ability, but the point raises a deeper question that lies at the heart of higher education. This question is about differences of identity, viewpoint or perspective – and what role universities have in enabling an encounter with such difference to be a positive experience.

How can encounters with difference promote learning and understanding?

In pedagogical terms, how can encounters with difference promote learning? In interpersonal terms, how can they promote understanding? After all, learning and understanding are essential and complementary facets of campus life – or at least they ought to be. Yet both are arguably under threat within a sector that is increasingly fractious but also increasingly risk averse. Recent disputes over gender identity and controversies over non-disclosure agreements issued to staff after internal disputes illustrate this predicament. UK universities are embroiled in factional disagreements but also tend to treat disagreement as a threat to guard against.

Recent debates about campus life have often revolved around hardened rhetoric rather than evidenced argument (this is the trend among voices internal as well as external to higher education). I joined a group of colleagues in trying to help rectify this. I’ve worked in UK higher education for more than 20 years and have made universities the primary focus of my sociological research for 14 of them. Past projects have examined the status of religious constituencies on UK campuses, including the role of chaplains in delivering student welfare and the experiences of Muslim students stigmatised by the government’s counter-terrorism programme.

My current research casts a broader net, asking a cross-section of all students about their experiences of campus life, particularly how they encountered those with different perspectives from their own, and with what kinds of consequences. The methods originate in debates about interfaith relations – how members of different religious traditions relate to one another – but they have been extended in this research to students affirming a range of worldviews, both religious and non-religious. Our principal aims: to map the university experience in terms of student relationships, ask which identities gather together and which keep their distance, and find out what generates positive change.

Responding to 'provocative encounters'

One significant factor is what my colleagues and I call “provocative encounters”. We’re referring to those episodes where students receive critical comments from others that make them question their own worldviews – and those that inspire students to rethink their assumptions about others’ perspectives, including those with whom they disagree. The concept of provocative encounters captures the potentially positive consequences of living in a culturally, ethnically or religiously diverse environment. That is, experiences that enable individuals to be more informed about wider society, more able to relate to a range of people and less uncritical in embracing assumptions they have inherited.

These experiences might be music to the ears of educationalists and student welfare professionals keen to foster student interaction as a valuable resource for their learning and development. But only a minority of students at UK universities – between 10 and 20 per cent – reported having had such experiences on a frequent basis. Almost 30 per cent said they’d never had a discussion with someone of another worldview that had a positive influence on their perceptions of it; another 19 per cent said this was a rare occurrence. Meanwhile, 49 per cent had never received critical comments from others about their worldview that made them question it, perhaps reflecting the heightened sensitivities surrounding identity politics commonly associated with campus life. Most strikingly, only 12 per cent reported having frequent class discussions that challenged them to rethink their assumptions about a worldview different from their own (63 per cent said this happened rarely or never). If there is hesitancy about asking such questions, it extends across campus culture and classroom contexts.

And yet our research reveals that such provocative encounters are important drivers of learning and development. Challenging students about their assumptions and values is strongly associated with their development of positive attitudes towards those who are different from themselves. It makes them more likely to reflect critically on their own assumptions, more open to learning from others and so better equipped to engage with the challenges of living in a diverse society. This process is, however, compromised when students perceive such diversity to be handled insensitively, underlining how provocative encounters need to be framed within a respectful approach to difference. It is respectful provocation that will capture the potential of this generation of students.

Putting all this into practice...

But what does this mean in practice? It might mean reconceiving the nature of classroom debate, proceeding from a set of ethical principles that are agreed between students and staff. One of my colleagues is already doing this, her opening class based around an agreement that is formulated in collaboration with her students: how would we like our discussions to proceed and according to what kind of ethical values? What kind of guidelines would we like to follow in handling sensitive or controversial topics? Once established, the students and lecturer then commit to upholding those guidelines, ensuring accountability and buy-in from all involved.

This approach illustrates how the “respectful” part of respectful provocation cannot be imposed but needs to be modelled and negotiated. Many universities have become pretty good at regulating around sensitive material; what’s less easy is balancing respect with provocation, enabling difficult discussions not to be avoided but faced head on, while those involved are both accorded respect and required to show respect towards others. University staff have an important role to play here, and modelling best practice can be further enabled by reinforcing training in handling challenging material in the classroom.

We live in a very different context from that of 10 or even five years ago – new challenges demand new solutions. Many of these challenges are generated or complicated by social media and AI, and these require particular consideration. Fostering in students and staff a more critical awareness of how 21st century technologies both empower and marginalise will help us exercise more caution in our dependence on them – and more intelligence in their application.

Get this right and not only will campus relations improve, but we might also be able to start speaking about degree outcomes in a broader sense than simple earning potential. Earning power is important, of course, but let’s not lose sight of the ways in which universities promote a more complex social good, one of undeniable value within the fractious society in which we live.

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