150 years of the University Tests Act

June 19, 2021

The Accord Coalition has rejoiced the 150th anniversary this week of the enactment of the University Tests Act 1871, which largely ended religious discrimination at UK universities. Prior to the Act colleges at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities could require many office holders, teaching staff and students to be practising Anglicans.

The Act simultaneously prevented these universities from religiously discriminating, except regarding theological courses, and stopped them being able to compel office holders, teaching staff and students to engage in worship. It constituted an important advancement for the freedom of religion in Britain and contrasts starkly with how law in the UK continues to treat state funded schools.

Most state funded faith schools can religiously discriminate in pupil admissions and in the recruitment and employment of all their staff. Meanwhile, all state funded schools are required to provide compulsory daily worship of one kind or another.

‘… places of religion and learning, should be rendered freely accessible to the nation:’ (Universities Tests Act 1871, enacted on June 16th that year)

Chair of the Accord Coalition, the Revd Stephen Terry, said ‘The University Tests Act is an important milestone in the history of anti-discrimination legislation in education. To this day many universities in the UK have a religious foundation and receive significant public funds. Yet they do not and cannot discriminate by faith in the recruitment and employment of almost all their staff and in the recruitment and education of their students.’

‘150 years later we are still waiting for similar protections in our state funded school system – this is shaming and disgraceful. While we celebrate the anniversary of this Act, we call on HM Government to give hope and inspiration to those wishing to achieve a similar respect for individual autonomy and freedom in our state funded schools. They need to be levelled up, so that religious discrimination is finally and entirely expunged from all phases of our education system.

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