'A chaplain in every college'
Further education minister Bill Rammell says he wants every college to have its own chaplain.
Speaking to an audience in a London mosque, he said colleges have a vital role to play in encouraging young people to debate the meaning of life and the difference between right and wrong.
"We must give them the opportunities to develop knowledge and understanding of all religions, traditions, beliefs, and forms of expression," he said.
"At the core of this, we need our future society to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, especially those whose faith and beliefs are different from their own.
"I would like to have a chaplain in every college, but we would have to look at our resources."
He was speaking at a conference at the East London Mosque, titled "Leadership in a Pluralist Society" and organised jointly by the National Ecumenical Agency in FE, the Faiths in FE Forum, and backed by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership.
The Church of England says 200 colleges in the UK have chaplains.
Alan Murray, the C of E's national adviser on FE, said around 40 colleges have multi-faith chaplaincies, with the rest being primarily Christian.
Colleges are the only part of the education system where religious education is not funded. Schools are covered by the Religious Education Act and universities have traditionally provided the money.
There are 12 full-time college chaplains, with half of them funded jointly by the college and ecumenical organisations.
"If there is a minister or a vicar willing to give up part of their time, colleges will be prepared to take that up," he said. "It is more difficult for Sikhs and Muslims, as their leaders are often in full-time secular employment."
He said colleges could overcome funding problems by employing chaplains who also work as counsellors or teachers.
Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury college in Portsmouth, and a Christian, said she has been unable to recruit a replacement for the chaplain who left her college four years ago and relies on a group of student volunteers she calls the "Rev Team".
Mr Rammell said colleges can play a key role in tackling extremism and preventing any undue hostile reaction towards any particular community. He said: "College and post-16 environments are the ideal place for young people to develop into rounded members of society through their spiritual and moral development. We must be mindful that, while these young minds are open and questioning, they are also vulnerable to those who would seek to exploit this to breed intolerance and to spread falsehoods and fear."
Two documents on religion in FE were published this week. The Learning and Skills Council produced a handbook titled Towards a Whole College Approach to Chaplaincy for a Pluralist Society.
The CEL brought out its Faith Communities Toolkit, a practical guide for leaders and managers to help them provide for people from different religious backgrounds.
Speaking at the conference, Lynne Sedgmoor, the CEL's chief executive, said: "In the 2001 census, three quarters of the population reported belonging to a religion, despite this secular world we are supposed to live in.
"Religion, belief or spirituality is therefore part of the identity of many of our sector staff, learners and communities, whatever our own personal views may be. We need to respect that."