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Advancing equality and diversity in universities and colleges


Religion and belief

Supporting the practice and expression of religion and belief amongst staff and students

While traditionally higher and further education institutions in the UK have either had links to the Christian faith or been established as secular bodies, the growing diversity of staff and students at UK HEIs and colleges, together with the recognition of religion and belief as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, has led to many institutions developing a more inclusive approach to issues of religion and belief.

The legal protection of religion and belief includes any religion, religious belief or philosophical belief including lack of religion or belief. Alongside the major religions practiced in the UK, smaller religions such as Shintoism, Jainism and a range of pagan beliefs are recognised, as well as non-religious beliefs such as atheism, agnosticism and humanism.

Case law has expanded the definition of belief and philosophies such as vegetarianism and environmentalism have been judged to be protected subject to certain criteria.

In 2011 ECU collected evidence from 3077 members of staff and 3935 students through a survey, interviews, focus groups and case studies. The research explored the religion and belief issues that were having an impact on the sector and makes recommendations to help institutions to become more confident in developing approaches that meet the needs of their diverse staff and students.

Exams, timetabling and work patterns

Religious observance in higher education: institutional timetabling and work patterns gives for staff responsible for timetabling and examination schedules. Please note that this guidance predates the Equality Act. Updated guidance is currently being prepared.

The information below focuses on Ramadan but approaches taken will also be relevant to other religious festivals.

Accommodating religious practice during the exam period: Ramadan >

Ramadan will coincide with the main exam period from 2014 to 2018 and a large percentage of Muslim students will be combining the challenges of exams with fasting and other religious observance

With increasingly diverse staff and student populations in UK higher education, the question of how to accommodate religious practice during exam and assessment periods becomes more pressing.

Accommodating religious observance

Institutions and their staff and students have a mutual responsibility for accommodating religious observance in learning environments and in the workplace. Through the Equality Act 2010, institutions are required to ensure their practices do not disadvantage certain groups, unless the requirement is proportionate in the circumstances and contributes to achieving a legitimate aim.

Staff and students have no absolute right for their belief to be accommodated as the needs of the institution must be balanced with the beliefs of the individual. Ultimately, judgment of whether an institution has fulfilled its legal obligations will rest with the courts.

Adjusting exam schedules

Institutions should be prepared to consider significant adjustments to their exam schedules and think creatively about assessment methods in order to eliminate disadvantage to particular groups. Early planning with input from religious leaders and groups will help institutions to address the needs of religious students fairly to ensure that no student is unreasonably disadvantaged.

However, for many institutions altering the dates of major exam periods, or organising the timetable to allow each student to take exams at the time that best suits their religious requirements may not be a proportionate response.

Taking an inclusive approach to exams: recommendations >

Planning

  • Collect data on the religion and belief of students (and staff) to understand the scale of religious practice across the institution and how it may affect the exam timetable. Use this data at faculty and programme level to inform the timetabling process and reduce the number of requests for late adjustments.
  • Ask students to indicate early in the academic year (perhaps at annual registration) whether they plan to fast or have any other religious obligations that might be affected by the exam timetable. Clearly explain how this information will be used, and ask again when exam timetables have been produced to pick up any students whose intention has changed.
  • Ensure that the potential for accommodating religious obligations is discussed as part of the process of drawing up the exam timetable and related processes. Institutions will want to demonstrate that they have given serious consideration to the steps they might take to accommodate religious needs, have looked at risks and benefits and, should they decide not to mitigate an identified disadvantage to a particular group, can evidence that the decision is proportionate and contributes to a legitimate aim. In particular they will wish to decide whether fasting or any other practice will be considered a mitigating circumstance to be considered in the assessment of exam performance, and if so, how it will be employed and what evidence will be asked for. An equality analysis/impact assessment process might be usefully applied at this stage.
  • Involve chaplains/faith advisers, student societies, staff networks and religious leaders from the local community in the discussions and solutions (both strategic and operational). This will ensure that the institution is well informed about the issues and considers a diversity of views.

Timetabling

  • Timetable exams to avoid key religious holy days and rest days, or times when students and staff may wish to pray. Where this is possible it will help to reconcile clashes between academic assessment and religious observance. The BBC’s calendar of religious festivals is a useful resource.
  • Allow students who are observing Ramadan a choice of morning or afternoon exams. This will enable students to manage reduced energy levels due to fasting and sleep deprivation. To keep the content of exams confidential, institutions may need to keep morning and afternoon exam participants apart if the exams are on the same day, or use alternative exam papers. If an institution decides to offer this option, careful resource planning will be required from the outset.

Student support

  • Look after the wellbeing of students. Provide practical advice and support to students who are observing Ramadan to assist them to stay healthy and cope with the physical and mental demands of fasting, religious observance and exams.
  • Ensure that student counsellors and support workers are equipped to cope with a potential increase in demand and understand the particular pressures that students who are observing Ramadan may face. Student societies and local mosques may have access to additional resources. It is important that counselling providers understand the range of choices that a student might make in relation to religious observance during Ramadan and are comfortable with supporting a student whose practice may be different to their own.
  • Provide additional facilities to enable students to integrate religious observance into exam preparation. Many institutions extend library opening hours during the main exam period. Providing a space for prayer/religious practice close by and open at the same hours will enable students to easily combine their religious obligations with their studies. Similarly, while it may not be practical to extend the opening hours of regular catering facilities, the provision of alternative ‘pop-up’ facilities close to the library will allow students to eat at the required time without interrupting their studies significantly.
Case study: an inclusive approach to timetabling exams >

Identifying the scope of the issue

Monitoring information from a higher education institution reveals that 6.2% of students identify as Muslim. At annual registration, the institution asks all students to declare whether there is any issue that they would like to be taken into account regarding the examinations’ schedule. A significant number of students stated that they plan to observe religious obligations including fasting.

Analysing the impact

The institution conducts an equality analysis exercise and discusses the results with the timetabling committee, Muslim faith adviser, students’ union representatives and a human resources (HR) adviser.

Serious consideration is given to whether the main examination period could be moved so that it no longer coincides with Ramadan, but it is decided that the requirements of the individual degree programmes, the need for institution premises to be available during the summer to generate income, the expectations of students and the impact on staff do not make this a reasonable option.

The institution recognises that keeping to the usual examination period may indirectly discriminate against Muslim students but determines that it is proportionate in the circumstances and contributes to achieving the legitimate aim of managing business effectively.

Reducing adverse impact on students

Having decided not to move the main examination period, the committee discusses potential actions to reduce the adverse impact on students who choose to observe Ramadan, considering the needs of all students to ensure that accommodation for one group does not disadvantage another.

  • Examinations on a Friday may be particularly challenging (observant Muslim students and staff attend mosque at lunchtime, Friday is the most popular day for staff to take leave and many students who are going away for the weekend prefer to do so for cheaper rail fares) therefore the university decides that exams will only be scheduled from Monday to Thursday.
  • A number of students requested flexibility to take examinations in the morning or afternoon. As this number of students is small, the committee decides that their requests can be accommodated with the afternoon examination starting half an hour before the morning examination ends to ensure confidentiality.
  • Following consultation with the faith adviser and the Islamic students’ society, the committee decides that, as fasting is intended to be integrated into daily life, there is no reason to extend the length of time students who are fasting are allowed unless there is a medical reason. The committee decides that any student who is seeking extra time for examinations must provide medical evidence that this is a required adjustment.

Communicating the decision

The committee agrees a communication strategy to ensure that all students understand how timetabling decisions are made, focussing on inclusivity and fairness, with exceptions to general provision being clearly explained. Staff will also be informed of the arrangements, with a request that any member of staff involved in examinations who perceives that the agreed process will be problematic in relation to their personal needs (including observance of Ramadan) should speak to their line manager or the nominated HR adviser.

The committee informs the admissions and marketing department of the decisions that it has made so that the good practice can be used to demonstrate the university’s inclusive approach to potential students in future.

Support for students

Student services and faith advisers decide to produce guidance to help students to stay healthy and focused during the examination period, including advice on managing fasting and reduced and interrupted sleep.

In recognition of the diversity of practice among Muslim students – and that other students may also choose to fast or change their sleeping habits – the guidance will focus on behaviours rather than blanket statements (eg ‘students who are fasting’ rather than ‘Muslim students’).

The Muslim faith adviser and representatives from the Islamic students’ society offer to run a briefing session for staff in student services who would like to learn more about Ramadan.