Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America edited by Kristin Aune and Jacqueline Stevenson is a book focused primarily on research from the UK and the USA, although as the title suggests there are interesting chapters that look at the European context more widely and include Canada. It is an interesting and useful interdisciplinary text which brings together the world of Higher Education practice the sociology of religion which reflects both the editors and contributors’ fields of specialisation.
What I particularly liked about this book is that it contains chapters looking at a range of different faith groups and their interaction with Higher Education. Jasjit Singh’s chapter “Samosas and simran: university Sikh societies in Britain” gave an interesting overview of their development and current position. As a chaplain who interacts with a range of users of the university multi-faith centre in which I am based this gave me a useful insight.
Similarly, Charlotte Shira Schallie’s chapter looking at Jewish student identity and the politics of identification in Canada was useful in giving an insight into the experiences of students from that faith. Whilst primarily focusing on the debate within British Universities on Israel-Palestine Ruth Sheldon’s chapter gave a complementary insight into Jewish student identity.
These chapters came within section two of the book: “The religious student experience: learning from qualitative studies”, which was for me the most interesting part of the book. It also contained a paper from Aune and Guest developing some of the material from the research study and book Christianity and the University Experience which they were involved in.
The most enlightening chapter within this section was Invisible Islam: Muslim student migrant’s everyday practices in French secular universities by Anna Virkama. The portrayal of the French Secularism tends to be stereotyped within British media and discussion as does the way it is negotiated. This article reminded the reader that the construction of identity and the negotiation of context is complicated and differs according to individuals. The reductionist approach many of us take towards that situation is shown to be reductionist by this chapter.
Qualitative research and case studies are interesting and have much to teach us but it is also useful to examine the wider scope of the landscape and this is what the first part of the book does, using more quantitative methods coming from survey data.
The United States has more data available and so it is not surprising that two of the three chapters in this part of the book focused upon them. Jonathon P. Hill sought again to caution people against reaching reductionist conclusions about the secularising impact of secular universities by arguing for people to look at a wider range of variables in relation to religious affiliation and belief by students. This chapter adds a useful new piece to the pile of material relating to the secularisation debate.
This common theme of “it’s complicated and varied” was echoed by Paul Weller and Tristram Hooley looking at How religion or belief frame participation and access in UK higher education. The argument they gives argues that with regard to the core concerns of education, retention and achievement / teaching and learning / the university experience religion is important and there should be far more data being gathered, analysed and acted upon in relation to it.
This argument that much more notice should be taken of religion in relation to the policies and planning of universities is taken up in the final third of the book “The place of policies, structures and curricula”. This chapter focused more upon the UK and Europe and dealt explicitly with some of the issues which come out of us living in the era of PREVENT and the events which are argued to have made it necessary.
The chapter by Sariya Cheruvalli-Contractor and Alison Scott-Baumann about Islamic Studies in UK universities: challenging the curricula did this more implicitly than other papers in this chapter. They looked at the way many courses still have their roots in Orientalism and the way in which the courses need to update themselves to deal with the lived experience of Muslims and Muslim young people today. This goes back to the earlier themes this book dealt with so well, the importance in recognising the diversity of religious identities and negotiation of context. This theme is further underlined by Joke van Saane who looks at “the role of religion and personal life orientation in curriculum development processes within the domain of religious studies”.
Adam Dinham’s chapter calls loudly for higher education institutions (HEI’s) and society more broadly to deal with the urgent need for an increase in religious literacy. This call coming loudly from within practical theology and the sociology of religion community and beyond is one which we need to take seriously. Doing this would enable HEI’s and others to do what Duna Sabri is calling for when she talks of the need for us to take the religion part of the 2010 Equality Act as seriously as we do other parts.
The conclusion and overall recommendations coming from this text come within the introductory chapter from Stevenson and Aune where they give 12 practical recommendations about how HEI’s could move further towards being “religiously inclusive”.
Is this book worth getting hold of? Yes, most definitely, if you have any kind of role in planning, policy formation or teaching and learning within universities or are involved in HE Chaplaincy work. It is a unique book which was published as part of the Society for Research into HigherEducation (SRHE) series. The breadth of the book, the multi-faith contributions and the fact it is the most contemporary text available with a range of contributions from top researchers in the field make it, I would argue, an indispensable text for those currently seeking to develop medium term plans in the current HEI context with all its shifting sands.