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Unpacking the attainment gap for Muslim university students

Unpacking the attainment gap for Muslim university students

Categories: Latest News

Wednesday April 08 2020

A recent report by Advance HE has highlighted the under-attainment of Muslim students at university compared to the wider student population, suggesting that Muslims are systematically disadvantaged within education. The report details that only 18% of Muslims were awarded top classification, which is a significantly lower proportion compared to any other religious group, with 34% of Jewish students and 27% of Christian students graduating with higher degree classification. 

These statistics are supported by other research conducted by the Bridge Institute for Research and Policy exploring inequity and inequality surrounding Muslim student experiences, which found that, “those Muslims who do manage to access HE are also more likely to leave early, are less happy with their teaching, most likely to be disappointed in their student experience and, overall, do less well than their non-Muslim, White peers in terms of their final degree attainment.” 

According to the Advance HE report, the attainment gap was due to “differences in students’ backgrounds and experiences, differences in treatment from staff and other students, and “barriers specifically associated with religious observation”. Existing research suggests that negative student experiences amongst Muslims are a result of both overt, structural, and institutional Islamophobia, compounded by a lack of religious literacy and a lack of appropriate safeguards to prevent a culture of discrimination and racism.

A 2017 NUS report found that 1 in 3 Muslim students on campus have received Islamophobic abuse, meanwhile, it appears that many universities remain ill-equipped to combat racisms on campus. In an environment wherein there are underlying prejudices and the establishment of stereotypes and disinformation, there is an inevitable impact upon the recognition of the needs and concerns of Muslim students, leading to detrimental consequences for their educational attainment and overall student experience.

The need to safeguard pupils in the context of institutional and individual Islamophobia emerges as particularly crucial given the effect of the PREVENT policy on the experiences of Muslim students. The NUS report showed that 1 in 3 said PREVENT had a negative impact on them, including the apprehension of engaging in political debates in case of referral.  In the NEU’s report, “Barriers”, teachers talking about the implications of PREVENT felt that “Prevent is so strong that teachers feel that disagreeing with them [PREVENT guidelines] is seen as condoning extremism and there is pressure to ‘watch’ Muslim students and their work.” The fact that the highest proportion of PREVENT referrals comes from the education sector, necessitates that teachers adopt the role of agents of the state and monitor students who are in turn positioned as suspect. It is inevitable, therefore, that the impacts of PREVENT manifest themselves in both staff/student interaction and student’s performance, thereby affecting their educational achievement.

The Advance HE report also noted that the performance of Muslim students was inversely related to the proportion of Muslim staff at an institution, suggesting that an underrepresentation of Muslim staff can exacerbate the attainment gap for Muslim students. Currently, the diversity of students across universities does not translate into a diverse staff base, with BAME groups being significantly underrepresented and forming only 1.54% of the total academic population. An LSE focus group analysing the attainment gap between its BAME and white students found that current university culture and student-academic interaction negatively impacted their sense of belonging and self-confidence. Certain accounts described instances of racial bias, neglect, and lack of support by academic mentors. A diverse staff force ensures that universities are equipped to understand the nuanced and intersectional experiences of BAME and Muslim students and are thus better able to support and meet their needs.

It is therefore imperative that higher educational institutes understand how both institutional and individual Islamophobia are manifested in order for them to understand Muslim and BAME students’ experiences and form effective strategies to support them. Given the particular under-attainment of Muslims, steps need to be taken to mitigate Islamophobia and prevent barriers to their educational attainment. Therefore, MEND urges policymakers and universities to:

  1. Commit to supporting academic freedoms and initiatives to decolonise education, whilst giving greater emphasis within the national curriculum to shared histories and the contributions of minority communities in building our society.
  2. Commit to developing training programmes for teachers and university staff focussed on tackling and addressing discrimination based on race, religion, disability, or sexuality.

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