‘Religious students avoid the library’
In the new ISB, foreign students gave the availability of prayer rooms at the RUG a grade of 2.92. That rating has been lower in the past, but that is not to say this score is good: the RUG consistently has a score that is below the national average (3.09). The Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences had an especially bad score (2.83).
Each faculty at the RUG can decide for themselves whether or not they want to have a prayer room. Seven of the eleven faculties do have space where students can pray, although these are often the so-called ‘silent areas’. But if you want to pray during a day of studying at the UB, you are out of luck. The building has no separate space where religious students can withdraw for a while, and that leads to unpleasant situations, says medical student Abu Qaswara: ‘In the UB, I often pray in between the book cases. Sometimes people see me making these unfamiliar movements. It’s uncomfortable.’
‘We encourage people to find their own spot’
Lezan Kader studies dental hygiene at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, but up until last year, she used to pray on the first floor of the UB. However, the library put a stop to that in October: the hallway was an emergency exit and had to remain unobstructed. Medical student Jehan Alhelali would also like to see a prayer room in the UB. ‘It doesn’t have to be a large space, just a small room would be fine’, she says.
But even after the UB is renovated, it will not have a prayer room. UB director Marjolein Nieboer explains that the renovation will mean ‘more room to study, more light, better sound management and a more sustainable building’. But a prayer room is not included in the plans.
‘An open university’
According to RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens, the RUG sees no reason to provide prayer rooms. ‘The RUG is an open university and is not linked to any specific religion. We encourage people to find their own spot, and that is fine’, says Deekens.
The fact that there is no place to pray in the UB means that a lot of religious students end up avoiding the library when they have to study all day, says Alhelali. According to the medical student, they mainly move to the large silent room in the medical faculty’s bicycle basement – like she does herself.
The room in the medical faculty is appreciated, says Remko Bezema, head of the educational institute at the UMCG. Yet he thinks it is a good idea for each faculty to decide for themselves whether or not to offer a prayer room. According to Bezema, that choice greatly depends on the student population and the curriculum.
Thanks to an exchange programme with Saudi Arabia, the medical faculty has many students from that country, many of whom use the large prayer room. But the presence of that room has nothing to do with the exchange programme, according to Bezema. ‘In the meetings with the Saudi government, we did not discuss whether or not there would be any prayer rooms’, says Bezema, who emphasises that the facility already existed several years before the first Saudi students even arrived.
‘We see it as a service for the students’
‘At the medical faculty, we have a study programme such that expect students to be on site all day. That means we have to invest more in things such as proper catering and proper work spaces, as well as a prayer room. We see it as a service for the students’, Bezema explains.
Dion Glastra at the Groningen Student Union also agrees that the choice of a prayer room should be left up to the individual faculties. Still, he emphasises that the university is a public institution, and that a prayer room does not have to be a priority. ‘But if it’s financially viable, it is something to consider’, says Glastra.
In 2010, Jorien Holsappel got her PhD at the RUG on research into silent areas. According to her, a prayer room would not necessarily be in conflict with the RUG’s secular policy. ‘Our understanding of the separation of church and state has changed. Secular values means that freedom of religion exists. Secularity is often more than just the direct opposite of religion. And the meaning of religion is not as strong as it used to be. Religion has become so diffuse that you can’t really define it in black and white terms’, says Holsappel.
According to Holsappel, a prayer room can also benefit students who do not necessarily need to pray. ‘In reality, some students also enjoy a space where they can withdraw when there is too much pressure or when they experience adversity.’