Review: Christianity and the University Experience

Christianity and the University Experience should be read by everyone concerned with ministry to students.  It's the outcome of a project in 2009–2012 across thirteen English universities, investigating patterns of religious commitment among undergraduates identifying themselves as Christian.  And perhaps the most striking finding of all was that 51% of all respondents identified themselves as "currently belonging" to the "Christian tradition", yet almost a third of these did not go to church at all: neither while at university nor during vacations.  

The authors of this engaging book examine this surprise result carefully.  They note that "None" was the first option in the list of "religions or spiritual traditions" provided (gaining 34% of responses), that a separate question allowed respondents to describe themselves as "religious", "spiritual but not religious" or neither, and that the overall survey response rate was only 12%.  Nevertheless, they believe that self-identification as "Christian" is a strong foundation for the analysis that follows – despite the volatility in religious self-identification that might be inferred from comparisons with other datasets, such as the UK National Census.  Thus one of the book's key conclusions is that special attention should be paid to the many "hidden Christians" in our universities.  For example, given that only 10% of this survey's "Christians" claimed to be active in Christian Unions, the authors suggest that "university authorities and Student Unions should be careful not to confuse the hidden majority of Christian students with the minority in CUs".  Clearly this advice places considerable weight on students' subjective interpretations of the relevant survey question – as indeed does the whole analysis.

Having expressed a criticism, let me move on to areas where I believe we can still learn from this research.  A great strength was the stratification of the survey according to the structure of the university sector.  The researchers gained permission to send their questionnaire to undergraduates at three traditional elite universities (Durham, Cambridge, UCL), three inner-city 'Red-Bricks' (Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield), two 1960s campuses (Kent, Salford), two post-1992 universities (Derby, Staffordshire) and three of the Cathedrals Group (Chester, Winchester, Canterbury Christ Church).  A full chapter is devoted to comparing the cultures engendered in these different categories – although it would have been good if more of the survey's conclusions had related to them.  Most of us are probably familiar with only one of these categories, and might imagine that universities are more similar than they really are with regard to policies, student attitudes, etc.  Here the Cathedrals Group institutions appear in a particularly good light.

In-depth interviews were also conducted with students, chaplains and others at five universities (those listed first in each set of brackets above).  Fascinating insights emerged regarding the perspectives of chaplains, and the attitudes of students to churches and Christian Unions, evangelism, gender roles and many other issues.  The precipitous decline of the Student Christian Movement is contrasted with the vibrancy of the UCCF, though not without some skepticism about what the future may hold.

It's not straightforward to extrapolate from this study to the postgraduate situation.  At many points we should expect contrasts, but we might make some hypotheses and tentative suggestions based on this pioneering study of England's undergraduates.  

  1. One key conclusion is that the university is not particularly a force for secularisation (cf. Mark Roques' review here), neither through education nor socialisation.  But we might suspect that doctoral programmes are rather different.  A well developed Christian worldview – as the various postgraduate ministries tend to foster – may be needed if PhD students are to avoid a crisis of faith, on the one hand, or what has been called a "crisis of irrelevance", on the other.
  2. International students appeared as quite a distinct sub-group regarding their need to build community, their alienation from the undergraduate drinking culture, and indeed their sometimes-critical perspectives on indigenous Christian initiatives.  Since the postgraduate intake at most universities is predominantly non-British, we ought to place a specially-high priority on reaching and empowering internationals.
  3. The traditional elite universities are where the most "Christians" report having become "more religious" since arriving: 26%.  This is followed by the Cathedrals Group, with 16%; the others all have rates of 11–12%.  Becoming "less religious" is also most common at the elite universities (19%), whereas the Cathedrals Group, encouragingly, have the lowest rate (7%).  Might these patterns hold for postgrads too?  
  4. Since only 5% of "Christians" report attending church more frequently at university than during vacations, the authors conclude that direct efforts at evangelism seem to be rarer and/or less-effective than the rhetoric of CUs suggests.  Whether or not that inference is sound, I suspect evangelism may be even less attempted and less successful among postgraduates.  We need to think deeply about this, in collaboration with the other postgraduate initiatives.  (Watch this space!)

There's much more fascinating and important detail and nuance in the book.  Do get hold of a copy!

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