Muslim students: Facing challenges before and during university

Muslim students: Facing challenges before and during university

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In 2009, 3 students were stabbed exiting City University in London. Why? Because they were Muslim. A few days before, at the same university, a student’s skull was cracked open in an attack that took place because they were on their way to a prayer room. Islamophobic attacks at universities are a microcosm of Islamophobia in the UK in general, but they also speak to a more specific issue: Muslim students at our universities are continually being failed by the education system.

At first glance, Muslims seem to face no significant barriers to getting in to university, with 9% of university students identifying as Muslim, compared with 8.1% of school-age children. However, as a study by the Bridge Institute details, Muslims are much less likely than their peers to get into the so-called Russell Group Universities. This number of 9% is therefore misleading because only 3.15% of students at Russell Group university students are Muslim. The Bridge Institute also points out that this term, used to refer to the most ‘prestigious universities’, increases disadvantage as it is based on a ‘traditional’ system that favours institutions because of age rather than merit. Because of things such as family histories, social and educational advantages, White British students are more likely to apply (and get into) these institutions, evidenced by the fact they are 77% White British. This exemplifies the embedded social structures that continue to exclude Muslims from the top.

What is more, once Muslim students arrive at university, they are less likely to do well. A recent report by Higher Education, found that 65% of students identifying as Muslim gained firsts and 2:1 degrees as undergraduates, compared with more than 76% of all other students. These grade-gaps are wider at universities with fewer Muslim students: where there were fewer than 3.5% Muslim students (as is the case at Russell Group universities) the attainment gap was 19 percentage points. Muslim students are also more likely to drop out: 3.2% as compared to 2.3% of students with no religion.

There are many interlinking reasons why Muslim students might have a higher drop-out rate, but one might be the high amounts of Islamophobia. One-third of Muslim students say they experience abuse at university, with nearly 80% believing this is religiously motivated. 30% of Muslim students said they felt alienated from other students: something that was particularly true of girls who wear a hijab. One girl, Salma Haidrani explains that she felt she had to wear her hijab as a turban whilst at university, ‘to make it less obvious and to look more like a fashion accessory.’ In other words, she felt she had to disguise her identity. Furthermore, 43% of Muslim students found they felt uncomfortable speaking their views as a result of the government’s Prevent scheme, which is in place to tackle terrorism. Students were worried they would be seen as extremist. This shows that Muslim students are made to feel they are being surveilled in an environment that is meant to foster personal growth and the exploration of ideas and identities. As Professor Jacqueline Stevenson writes, ‘the apparent threat posed by Muslims, however, is also the direct cause of attacks on Muslims.’

For those who do achieve their degrees, structural disadvantages continue after leaving university. Muslims already face increased intersectional disadvantages, and with lower degree classes they will find it harder to find work in the already-competitive industries. This is reflected by the fact that only 5.5% of Muslims work in what is classified as a ‘higher professional occupation’ compared with 7.6% generally. Interestingly, at universities themselves, only 3% of teachers identify as Muslim. This trend, at universities and beyond, means that if there are less Muslims higher up in the workforce then people lower down in businesses are more likely to be discriminated against as a result of their religion, with no representation at a legislative level.

The cycle of disadvantage is therefore able to continue even for those who manage to go to university. 46% of Muslim population reside in the most deprived areas, and 60% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi British families live in poverty. Significantly, although 43% of Muslims at universities are women, 65% of economically inactive Muslims are women due to expectations of their domestic role once they are married.

With coronavirus increasing uncertainty in the education sector, there are worries that Muslim students, particularly those who are BAME and/or from deprived backgrounds, will be unfairly marked by predicted grades. Prof Kalwant Bhopal says: ‘There’s a lot of evidence to show that there are stereotypes around particular types of students, so their predicted grades are lower, and when they do the exam they do better than their predicted grade.” One of the reasons for this is bias from the teachers, 85.9% of whom are White British. It is worth pointing out that 92.9% of headteachers are White British, again exemplifying the traditional markers that facilitate success and often exclude Muslim members of the community. Schools and governing bodies need to ensure that these biases do not further exacerbate already disadvantaged students.

JAN Trust is committed to educating BAMER and Muslim women. We work to provide these women with a voice and create an environment that they feel comfortable to express themselves in.