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A “little special room” with soft mats, placed in a circle for students to sit comfortably while practicing meditation with little Buddha statues and candles is how a University of Leeds’s student describes the Buddhist silent room at her university. To create an “escape” from the stressful routine and “magical relaxed zone”, the university offers soothing music and a relaxing atmosphere, says Nefeli Karapanou.
Nefeli Karapanou, who is studying law at the university, believes: “The university is supportive and has done its best to help us feel comfortable with who we are and what we believe in.” But it is not just the facility that makes her feel part of a community. She was given the opportunity to speak about her religious beliefs when registering at the university. “I was quite anxious about leaving home and fitting in so that calmed me down by making me feel like I already belonged to a group, without even attending university yet,” she says. During freshers' week the students had an opportunity to meet more than ten faith societies and were provided with faith-based support contacts. As a Buddhist, she did not expect to find support or interest in her religion, however, with a Buddhist meditation society with more than 1,000 members she was proved wrong. They offer one session per week, each lasting two hours and they give reassurance that the, “Union is always open to new ideas and religious groups, giving you the opportunity to create your own new society”, helping her feel, “warmly welcomed and accepted”.
Over the years, the religious beliefs of students in UK universities have diversified considerably. This change has been made by an increase in the number of international students, who have introduced even more wide-ranging faith positions such as Buddhism and Islam. This process places institutions of higher education in the position of balancing the competing demand of different students’ religious needs. In an attempt to attract more students, universities tend to promote their campuses, facilities, and societies. However, “In reality, you do not meet what you have been offered”, reveals Dr. Husni Hammuda, the Muslim chaplain of the University of Surrey.
The role of a chaplain is a pastoral one; to look after the student’s well-being from a religious viewpoint. Dr. Hammuda is at the university almost every day, conducting the Friday prayers, and is friends with a big part of the student community. However, his job is voluntary. He shares that of the six chaplains, only the Anglican and Catholic receive paycheques, which are from the church. He believes that chaplains not being encouraged by the university is the first flaw in the system. “These people have other jobs and they appear more or less,” he says.
“Things are going backward,” states Dr. Hammuda. A few years back the situation was different: the chaplains had a paid rota and the students were notified. In this way, they knew which day of the week their chaplain would be at the office, and was easily available. The students had the opportunity to go whenever they wanted for a piece of advice or to share their thoughts, and feel liberated. Now not only do some of the chaplains not appear on a daily basis, but some of their emails are not working or you can receive a response weeks later. “In one year we had four suicides,” admits Dr. Hammuda, suggesting that “supporting religious spaces and chaplaincy, if done properly, could prevent them”.
Another problem, which occurs in the University of East Anglia is the inadequate state of the provided facilities. While Dr. Hammuda says that the quiet centre in his university, which was neglected for many years is now under renovation, their prayer room still needs some refurbishment and the only hall big enough for Friday prayers is already crowded. Speaking about the removal of Muslim prayer spaces during exam season on the eve of Ramadan last May, Jo Swo, union spokesperson for welfare, community and diversity, told The Independent that Muslim students were under, “A tremendous amount of anxiety as they feel observed and treated like an inconvenience to the University.”
By contrast, Dr Hammuda describes the University of Surrey's plans for a multi-faith centre as "a dream”. The “breakthrough”, as he describes it, was valued at £7 million and was supposed to create a two-story building for respectful communication and friendship across barriers of religion, history, and culture. More than £1 million was collected for the dedicated space for six major world faiths - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and then the money flow stopped, “If you went to countries abroad, they as governments can really help and contribute, which was not done properly. They went to Qatar one time and did not even take the Muslim chaplain. You have to have a strong team,” he says, believing the project was not marketed well enough from the governors of the university. “The university has the money to invest,” he adds, giving recent investment of more than £30 million in campus buildings as evidence that the university could raise the money.
Not only does the "Multi-Faith centre" have no plans to restart the development, but the next university move is to change the location of the chaplaincies' office. The main reason behind this is to convert the place into accommodation, so they “can generate more income”, states Dr. Hammuda. While the office has a central position at the campus of the University of Surrey, making it easily approachable, its new position will situate it outside of the campus, in a place where, “It has been three years and the students still do not know about it, because it is isolated”. The University was unable to provide a response, despite them promising a reply within a month.
A different point to whether universities are providing facilities for students to practise their faith is given by Christopher Baker, Professor of Religion and Public Life at Goldsmith, University of London and Director of The William Temple Foundation. He believes that religious education is a, “really important dimension of the curriculum”, as it focuses on how people live their faith rather than what that faith is. “It is a way of engaging people to think creatively, but also in a kind of what I would call critical way: the world use of their own position, the worldview of others, and asking the deeper questions about morality, ethics and the purpose of life,” he says. Describing the 21st century as being the post-secular age, he thinks that we need to reimagine a public sphere where religion can, “coexist and learn to live alongside and symbiotically with each other.” Thus, his suggestion that universities who are not working towards religious support, “Are in danger of not being publicly accountable for the way that they create a just and harmonious civil society.”
Needless to say, the intention of the university is to help, as they know faith is an important part of the religious person. Whether they themselves are religious or not, it does not matter. Religion and belief are very powerful ways in which the current political, cultural and civil life are being shaped. “And of course, religion and belief, when lived out, have the capacity to both be a great asset to society and a great hindrance as well,” says Prof. Baker. People come from abroad with different beliefs and some communities and societies are more religious than others. The universities within the UK realise that, hence they have established faith societies which are applicable to all religious facilities.
Royal Holloway, University of London is one of the top UK universities that provide not only adequate facilities but takes the effort to create events every day of the week and Friday prayers in the Chapel, located at the campus of the university. From mediation sessions on Mondays, through a quiet hour on Tuesday to, "Stress-busters Fun Friday," with board games, snacks, movies, and crafts open to everybody, regardless of beliefs, and experienced students can find a place to express themselves in a way they feel the best. Emma Henderson, a Law student at Royal Holloway, defines herself as, “not particularly religious.” She thinks that although the initiatives are, “Beneficial and thoughtful”, they provided activities that are not advertised enough on campus and not many students know about them. “You can find information only if you go to the chapel, or look up online with the exact name of the event,” says Henderson. However being in a diverse friendship group, she can recollect times the university helped her, “Build tolerance and respect towards people of different races, religions, and cultures”, as well as make her aware of the importance of cross-cultural cooperation.