Is King College’s Secularisation Being Challenged?

Founded in 1836 as an Orthodox Anglican college, King’s College led the way in becoming a bastion for liberalism and forward thinking when it became secular in 1903. A new report however suggests that King’s College’s secularisation may be at an end. 

The report which is seemingly affiliated with King’s geography department appears to call for the identity of students and staff to take precedent over the actual education being delivered at the institute. The report specifically focuses on Muslim students, with its opening salvo highlighting how nationally, Muslims are poorer than other religious groups and how they drop out of university far more frequently, and get poorer grades when they stay. 

Having thus highlighted the problems facing Muslim students, the report then goes onto make several recommendations which raises many questions. 

The report highlights that many Muslims do not drink, and consequently students of Islamic faith feel excluded from student society get-togethers where drinking does usually take place. Instead of perhaps encouraging these students to attend these events without feeling pressured to drink, the report calls for the student societies to completely ban drinking from their events. This might seem a trivial thing, but as recent figures suggest more young people are turning their backs on booze, it does seem as though in order to appease one group, others are missing out, which does not seem altogether fair as it is removing the option of students to choose what they do. 

Other demands in the paper include the proposal that there must be a curbing of ‘white geographies.’ What is taught must reflect the ‘experiences of a diverse range of students, allowing minority students to see themselves as legitimate creators of knowledge.’ Given that King’s College London’s curriculum is well known to already go beyond the basic teaching of the geography of European and other white countries, what specifically could the proposal be referring to? Indeed, it would seem to suggest that rather than the starting point of a university education being the encouragement to question all that is presented before you, students would instead be taught to see  institutional racism and colonial structures as being implicit within the system.

The report also highlights that the work of Muslim scholars must be emphasised because they are ‘relevant to the lived experiences of students,’ and that the curriculum be adjusted according to what those students demand.  This proposal whilst well intentioned could potentially undermine the university experience for all students. It appears that the authors of the report have started with a baseline assumption that students, regardless of their faith, cannot empathise with the experiences of those who have beliefs different to them whilst blithely assuming that a sudden change in the curriculum, focusing on one particular group of students will not alienate other students. This suggests that the authors hold a particularly narrow view of Muslim students, and see them much as the colonial rulers of old would have seen them. 

This view is repeated in the demand for more BAME staff, again assuming that Muslim students are more likely to connect with the work being taught if it is being taught to them by someone who shares the same faith as them and is thus more able to understand them and their experiences. Again, whilst well meaning the merits of this are questionable. It appears to follow from an underlying assumption that Muslim students cannot or are unable to understand and appreciate  the views of those who do not share their faith. Doesn’t this risk infantilising students, ignoring their academic needs and judging them purely by the colour of their skin and their faith?  Surely, where university education is meant to question existing structures and expand thinking, this is only likely to compartmentalise the university experience for students. 

Right at the end of the report comes the most concerning element of it.

“Departments should also ensure that Muslim students are finding the support and connections they seek… The geography department runs an excellent mentoring programme which may be further improved if mentees had the option of highlighting different preferences for their mentors – in relation to gender, ethnicity and religion.”

So, is this a call for outright segregation? If it is, then is this not a slippery slope? If one group of students are provided with the opportunity and the right to ask for a mentor based on their gender, ethnicity or religion, what is to stop other students demanding the same treatment? How does this address the issues of equity and fairness?

Whilst the authors of the report may have started off with good intentions and addressing the needs of students, it leaves more questions than solutions. 

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