University can feel like a hostile place to Muslim students

This blog was originally published on The Conversation

British Muslims are among some of the most disadvantaged people living in the UK, and yet this is not a story many are familiar with. This is because despite the poverty, disadvantage and social immobility Muslims face, headlines that link the faith to crime or terrorism, or to forced marriage or honour killings, are much more common.

But the reality, as reported by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, is that the unemployment rate for Muslims in the UK is more than twice that of the general population – and the disadvantage is even greater for Muslim women.

On top of this, the committee also found that many Muslims face discrimination and Islamophobia, along with stereotyping, pressure from traditional families, and insufficient role models.

And a lack of social mobility – the ability of individuals, families or groups to move up or down the social ladder in society – seems to be a particular issue for British Muslims of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage.

Poor access to education

One of the main problems, is that young Muslims face disadvantage when they come to apply to higher education. This has been shown in research by the Nuffield Foundation, which revealed that those of Pakistani heritage are less likely to receive higher education offers compared to white British applicants.

For those Muslims students who do access higher education, the odds can be stacked against them. Students from most ethnic minority backgrounds don’t do as well as their white peers – even when they enter higher education with the same or better qualifications. And although data on religion is not routinely collected by universities it is likely that many Muslims students are underperforming.

Even when Muslim students do manage to get good grades, good jobs are not always on the horizon. A recent report showed that young Asian Muslims face a “broken social mobility promise”, with a lack of jobs outlined as a major issue.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim women fare particularly badly in this area – which was detailed in the recent Casey Review.

This lack of employment is often made worse by racism, discrimination and the inherent bias faced by those from ethnic minority backgrounds at all stages of their careers. And this includes the move from education to employment.

Hostility on campus

As I reported to the MPs committee, Muslims students’ experiences of higher education are also not always positive. And religion is rarely valued on UK university campuses.

My recent book, Religion and Higher Education in Europe and North America – co-authored with Kristin Aune from Coventry University – explains how universities are often self-consciously secular spaces. This can make those from religious backgrounds feel alienated. And university staff can also feel uncomfortable raising or addressing issues around religion.

Where debates around religion do exist, much of the discourse has drawn on a “moral panic” relating to the growth of fundamentalism and global terrorism. It has focused, in particular, on the threat posed by “Muslim young men”. And in response, ever increasing guidance has been provided to universities on how to tackle violent extremism on campus.

It is unsurprising then that universities can feel like hostile places to Muslim students, which, as my previous research shows, can shape their sense of belonging on campus. Muslim students are of course not the only religious group who find the higher education campus to be, at times, a hostile space. Nor is this a solely British phenomenon.

Implementing change

With this in mind, our book makes a series of recommendations. This includes giving university staff religious literacy training so that they feel equipped and empowered to talk about religion.

Students could also be drawn upon to present different viewpoints on religion. And religious perspectives should be included more often in class discussions. This could help to open these discussions up to both scrutiny and challenge, as well as understanding.

Our call for greater recognition of religious perspectives is not to deny that religion gives rise to conflict – it can and it does. But it is clear that engaging with discussions around religion is a key step to achieving greater equality in the UK.

Jacqueline Stevenson is Head of Research at Sheffield Institute of Education






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