Bullying is "alive and well" in colleges, with more than one in 10 adult learners experiencing harassment because of their religion, a new report commissioned by the Skills Funding Agency has found.
Just over half of the more than 1,100 respondents to the SFA's survey considered themselves to have a religion, with the vast majority of those - more than 80 per cent - stating that they were either Christian or Muslim.
But 11 per cent also reported that they had been bullied or harassed because of their religion or belief. Just under half of them had reported the incident to their college.
The rate of bullying because of religion was just lower than that reported by lesbian, gay and bisexual students in 2011, the researchers found, while three in 10 transsexual learners said when surveyed last year that they had suffered harassment.
"Bullying and harassment due to religion is alive and well ... It appears that the motivations for bullying and harassment lie in the perception of difference and in competing and opposing beliefs," the report stated.
Problems occur when accommodation is made for certain groups that can lead to others feeling marginalised or excluded, researchers found. "Before trying to accommodate a particular group's perceived or stated need, it may be worthwhile consulting the wider learner community. Consultation will ensure that no learner feels totally excluded, including those with 'no beliefs'."
Other findings revealed that certain religious groups were less tolerant than others. "A small minority, some with religious beliefs (and in our small qualitative sample, particularly Christians), were less likely to compromise their beliefs to accommodate others," the report said.
But researchers found that respondents had mixed feelings about equal opportunities monitoring systems, with some complaining they would be unnecessary and invasive, and warned that setting one up would have to be handled carefully.
"Sensitive consultation should be undertaken, followed by detailed publicity as to the reasons for monitoring and the use to which the data will be put," the report said.
The Skills Funding Agency is due to hold a series of seminars on the issues raised by the report at its Coventry headquarters in January.
Among those attending will be representatives from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. The institute's programme manager, Chris Taylor, said: "I think they will be looking at the practical issues that have come out of the report. Learners from the minority community need to feel the place of learning is tolerant and that they can thrive."
But she said she was encouraged by the finding that most of the survey's respondents knew there were procedures in place to report bullying. "I think adult learning providers have been sensitive and put policies in place," she said.
The report said that the majority of learners had rated their learning providers as "welcoming" and added: "Those learners with visible signs of belief and those who are open in class are more likely to report a positive experience, such as being invited to be a student representative."
The National Union of Students said it was already providing guidance to student unions and representatives on campuses about how to promote dialogue between different faiths.
Pete Mercer, NUS vice-president for welfare, said: "Unfortunately, the evidence we have conducted on hate incidents contains some distressing findings, with almost one-fifth of hate incidents experienced by students in further and higher education thought to have an element of religious prejudice.
"Our research found that these incidents, particularly if they are persistent, often have major repercussions for the victim's long-term mental health."
And Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that lecturers had a role to play in making sure religious bullying was stamped out.
"We know that there are real issues for some ethnic minorities in terms of how they are treated by society as a whole," she said, adding that the job of the tutor was "to make sure they have a safe and healthy working environment - be it even just having the space to sit and talk to your students on an individual basis and identify their particular issue".
11% of students said they had been bullied because of their religion or belief
14% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students said they had been bullied or harassed
30% of transsexual learners said they had been bullied or harassed
10% said there was no one they could turn to in colleges to report bullying
40% of respondents said their college had accommodated their religion or belief by providing "safe spaces" such as prayer rooms.