Employment opportunities for Muslims in the UK Contents

3Widening access to university

87.In this chapter we consider access to university for Muslim students, including their under-representation at Russell Group universities; barriers to studying at university, including: finance; parental support, and the attainment gap BME students face once at university and after graduation. We will also consider how work in this area is being undermined by a lack of data broken down by narrower categories.

88.In this chapter references are made to BME students rather than Muslim students, this is due to a lack of data. As we heard from Professor Jacqueline Stevenson in Chapter 1, data on religion and faith is not collected compulsorily by the Higher Education Funding Council for England or UCAS.91

89.Data recently published by UCAS in their 2015 End of Cycle report, shows that the entry rates for all ethnic groups increased in 2015, reaching the highest recorded values for each group. Students in the Asian ethnic group have increased to 41% (2.2% increase compared to 2014), this compares to 28% from White ethnic group and 58% from Chinese ethnic group.92

Figure 2: Representation of BME students in higher education, 2003/04 - 2013/14

The proportion of BME students has seen a large increase since 2003/4. The proportion of BME students in 2003/4 was 14.9%, the proportion of BME students in 2013/14 was 20.2%

Source: Equality Challenge Unit, Equality in higher education: statistical report 2015

Russell Group

90.However progress in increasing the number of Muslim students studying at Russell Group universities93 is slow. Statistics published in the Equality Challenge Unit’s94 report, Equality in higher education: statistical report 201595 breaks down attendance at Russell Group universities as follows: White: 82.3%; Black: 2.8%; Asian: 8.6%; Chinese: 1.5%; Mixed: 3.6%; Other: 1.2%.96

91.Research carried out by Vikki Boliver from Durham University analysed more than 151,000 applications to Russell Group institutions between 2010 and 2013 found that, while 54.7% of applications submitted by white students resulted in offers, the success rates was only 30.3% for students of Pakistani background and 31.2% for those students of Bangladeshi background.97 The data used in Vikki Boliver’s analysis is based on student’s self-declared ethnicity provided on their UCAS form.

92.Research referred to in the Higher Education Academy’s 2012 report, Black and minority ethnic student degree retention and attainment, found that:

[ … ] even after controlling for the majority of contributory factors (prior attainment, subject of study, age, gender, disability, deprivation, type of HE institution attended, type of Level 3 qualifications, mode of study, term-time accommodation and ethnicity), being from a minority ethnic group (except the Other Black, Mixed and Other groups) was still found to have a statistically significant and negative effect on degree attainment.98

Barriers to university study

93.Witnesses described a number of barriers that Muslim students face at different stages of their academic life in accessing the top universities. Some of these also affect non-Muslim students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We will now explore these.

Parental aspirations

94.In their report, Rising to the Top, Demos suggested that for some Muslim communities, a lack of understanding about career planning by parents can have implications for the student’s higher education choices:

Parents often talk about how they want their child to be doctor or a lawyer–and that aspiration is great [ … ]. The choice to pursue that career is too often not based on a student’s particular skills or interests.99

95.Aman Ali from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies highlighted the need to improve parental understanding of study subject choices, particularly when students want to study a subject that their parents are not familiar with:

A huge challenge is when a student comes to a parent and wants to pursue a particular path, but the family is not familiar with it and they have no confidence in the particular path. They say, “Why do you not do something a bit safer?”100

Raising awareness of education choices

96.Professor Jacqueline Stevenson also told us of the need to improve awareness of subject choice at GCSE and A-level because of the subsequent impact these choices have on which degree subject they go on to study and which university they go to:

Both young people and parents need to understand very carefully the importance of choices that are made at GCSE level and A Level, and the way that those can act as barriers to which universities you go to [ … ] it can stop students accessing certain sorts of universities for certain sorts of courses full stop. Otherwise, without that knowledge, they can think they are working towards high performance and then find that it is the wrong sort of currency.101

97.We heard from IntoUniversity that more needs to be done to raise awareness of apprenticeships amongst students as an alternative, post-GCSE route to employment or a degree:

For apprenticeships as a whole, it is making sure all students have the full information on it. When we are working with students in secondary schools, one thing we do is tell them about university but also the other routes that are out there for them and how they access them.102

Attainment at school

98.We also received some evidence that choice of university was impacted by lower levels of attainment at school. The Russell Group said:

Another key reason why too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the right grades in the right subjects.103

Family/religious demands

99.In their submission, IntoUniversity also highlighted the effect that family demands might have on a female student’s choice of university:

There are some issues for some of our BME students about which university they are able to apply for due to family/religious demands–typically, this is where gender comes into play as they are usually Muslim girls who must live at home; sometimes this means they are not able to apply for top universities/courses they cannot do at their ‘home’ university–however sometimes we are able to support students by showing them other options - for example by taking students to look round Murray Edwards College (all women).104

100.Sufia Alam from the Maryam Centre told us:

There is a cultural issue among some of the south Asian communities, because women are not perceived to leave the family home and live alone, so the better universities are not always a first choice because of the distance [ … ]105

Soft skills

101.We heard evidence that students from BME backgrounds are also disadvantaged when applying to university and once they are studying there, by a lack of soft skills.

102.Demos’ report, Rising to the Top discusses the impact of soft skills on applying to university and subsequent employment. They heard from a young Muslim professional:

What you find is that in academic terms there is very little difference, and young Muslims are coming through education and achieving as well, if not better than their peers. However, when it comes to soft skills there is a major gap. Those softer skills are developed by knowing people; they’re developed by the networks your parents have, by your social scene, and these things are related to wealth. Those are the things that are important when you come and sit in the interview. Those are the skills I’ve found lacking in a lot of people from our community; that’s where they fail.106

103.In their evidence to us, Demos suggested that English skills may be a particular barrier for some Muslim communities:

This lack of higher level English skills can be found across socio-economically disadvantaged groups of any religion or ethnicity. However, this barrier may be compounded within the British Muslim community, where language barriers in employment and education are more common.107

104.IntoUniversity told us that more work should be done to raise universities awareness of the supplementary school system:

University widening participation departments have almost no awareness or knowledge of the supplementary school sector. Students are missing out on essential support and guidance and Higher Education Institutions are missing out on the opportunity to fulfil their widening participation objectives.108

105.We also heard that some Muslim people’s lack of soft skills is also impacting on their success in the labour market:

It is things like critical thinking, emotional intelligence and confidence; it is about how you work a system. It is about if you are sitting at a policy roundtable, how you are heard when there are other voices that are louder than you. It is all of those things. I might be wrong, but I do not think you are taught that at a jobcentre.109

Further issues relating to the provision of effective support to work, will be discussed in Chapter 4.

Factors affecting student finances

106.For many Muslim students finance is also a barrier to a university education, since, as we saw in the previous chapter, they are more likely to have come from the most deprived areas of the UK. We heard evidence from Aman Ali from the Federation of Student Islamic Societies that some Muslim students had concerns about the potential to accrue large amounts of debt:

[ … ] in the Muslim community many people—but not all—come from a lowincome family. With the rise in tuition to £9,000, if someone wants to travel away from home on top of that and pay the financial costs of accommodation and food, all of that is quite gruelling, especially if someone goes through university for three years, in terms of how much debt they are going to accumulate. That is a definite barrier [ … ].110

107.We heard mixed evidence about the lack of an ethical Sharia-compliant student loan being a barrier to studying at university. The Government has been working on the introduction of a suitable product and a consultation was held in 2014. Although a product is not now expected to be available before the academic year 2016–17.111 Professor Stevenson, Head of Research, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, told us that the lack of a suitable product was affecting some students:

I would suggest that the data seems to suggest that Muslim students are slightly overrepresented in higher education overall, but differently represented across the sector. Therefore, it does not seem to be operating as a significant barrier, but it is a significant barrier for a small number of students.112

However, Aman Ali told us that the lack of a product was a barrier and for those students affected, they would often take a gap year to save the funds to go to university.113

Attainment gap at university

108.We also heard evidence that BME students were likely to experience an attainment gap once at university, with higher drop-out rates and a lower probability of receiving a First or 2:1:

However, the ethnic degree attainment gap in the UK is 15.2 percentage points: 75.6% of white qualifiers graduating in the 2013/14 academic year received a first/2:1 compared with 60.4% of Black and Minority ethnic (BME) qualifiers.114

Figure 3: Attainment gap by ethnicity, 2003/04-2013/14

The attainment gap has narrowed over time, but the gap varies by ethnicity

Source: Equality Challenge Unit, Equality in higher education: statistical report 2015

Graduate employment attainment gap

109.Muslims also experience a graduate employment attainment gap. In their evidence to us, ERSA stated:

[ERSA] Members’ experiences highlight that highly qualified Muslims are more likely to be unable to use their skills to their advantage. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Supporting Ethnic Minority Young People from Education into Work, demonstrated this when it reported that 39% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi graduates were underemployed compared with 25% of their white peers. One possible reason for this is that Muslim students are less likely to attend Russell Group universities and may instead opt to attend local universities for a number of reasons. This graduate underemployment is also reflected in reduced income levels. A recent Trades Union Congress report shows a 10% pay deficit between ethnic minority graduates and their white counterparts, increasing to 17% for those with A-level qualifications only.115

Support for Muslim students

Outreach and work of university groups

110.IntoUniversity and the Russell Group sent us evidence of their outreach programmes. These included mentoring and visits programmes as a means of introducing students to university experience and life and breaking down barriers to university experiences.

111.Laura Morley from IntoUniversity told us that they work in partnership with universities:

A lot of universities are realising that it is very hard for them, as an outreach team, to be doing work with age seven all the way up to age 18 with the resources they have. We do that in partnership with them. We work with local schools and we take them to that university.116

112.While we heard examples of the outreach work being carried out by universities and outreach organisations, there was little information available about the results of this work, and whether it directly affected the number of BME students gaining places at university.

113.In January 2016 Universities UK announced the creation of the Universities Social Mobility Advisory Group. This will “provide advice to the government and support for universities to improve access and long-term success for under-represented groups in higher education.”117

114.Currently, data on faith and religion is not collected compulsory by UCAS (on student’s application forms). The Equality Challenge Unit’s 2015 report, Equality in higher education: statistical report 2015118 which is based on data from the 2013/14 academic year, showed that: 92 out of 160 institutions returned religion and belief data on students to HESA (57.5%). This represents an increase of 12.8 percentage points from 2012/13 levels.

115.In evidence to us, Professor Stevenson raised concerns about whether UCAS had made data available to researchers and would continue to do so:

I know there has been discussion with UCAS as to whether that data will continue to be made readily and publicly available. Certainly, it was not being made available. It had been withdrawn from public use. That is changing now, but one of my recommendations was that anonymised UCAS data should be made available to academics for detailed analysis.119

Transparency duty

116.In January 2016, the Prime Minister announced plans to introduce a transparency duty on higher education institutions, requiring them to publish their admissions data broken-down by disadvantaged group:

Under the duty, which will be introduced in legislation, wide-ranging data will be published showing the ethnic, gender and socio-economic breakdown for applications, entry, and retention in key disciplines at all higher education institutions. Analysing this data will help tackle one of the biggest challenges currently in higher education: low entry and poor retention among black groups and white working class boys.120

117.Following our ministerial evidence session, the Minister for Skills, Nick Boles MP wrote to the Committee confirming that data would be collected and which categories will be used:

Institutions will be expected to publish application, offer and drop-out rates for students broken down by the ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background. This information will be published in a suitably anonymised way. Government intends to legislate for this Duty and we expect it to apply for 2018/19 academic year. We are proposing the Duty applies to those institutions whose students are in receipt of student support.

In terms of categories, the BME category will be broken down into broad ethnic categories such as “Asian”, ‘’Black’’, “Mixed” and “White” and we will look to explore the possibility of including a more granular breakdown in the future so as to include detail on whether students have a particular heritage for example from an Indian or Pakistani background. On the question of religion, response rates for religion or belief are currently very low and do not allow us to paint an accurate picture of the representation of people with these identities within institutions. However, a more granular breakdown (as described above) might potentially serve as broad proxies for religious affiliation.121

Conclusions and recommendations

Our key recommendations are that:

118.We are concerned about the lack of available data on Muslim student’s entry to university, and their attainment there and subsequent employment; and welcome the Government’s plans for compelling higher education institutions to collect data under the planned transparency duty. For its proposed transparency duty to be effective, universities must be required to break down its data beyond the broad heading of ‘BME’, and consider using a narrower heritage category.

119.While British Muslims are well represented within universities, they are still disproportionately under-represented within the Russell Group. We acknowledge the good work that is being done by universities to widen participation but believe that the Government and universities must more effectively measure the impact of this work and create meaningful strategies on the basis of activities that have been proven to be effective. Universities must publish their strategies to improve under-representation of Muslim students, including how they intend to measure the strategies, and publish the results on a yearly basis from academic year 2017–18.

120.Parents and students should be given sufficient information to make fully informed choices about future career and education choices which take into account alternative choices, including apprenticeships. Universities and umbrella organisations such as IntoUniversity, Million+ and the Russell Group must do more to engage parents from Muslim communities in outreach work. The need for greater parental involvement should be acknowledged within the Office for Fair Access’s agreements with universities from academic year 2017–18 or sooner if possible.

We also recommend that:

121.We heard that for a small number of Muslim students the lack of Sharia-compliant ethical student loans is a significant barrier to accessing higher education. In its response to this report, the Government should provide more information about the timetable for the introduction of a Sharia-compliant ethical student loan.

122.More also needs to be done to improve student prospects once at university and after graduation. Universities must introduce a dedicated careers advice service for BME students, in recognition of the employment gaps that they are affected by following graduation. This should include role models and mentors as a means of support after graduation. This tailored service should be made available from academic year 2017–18. The Universities Social Mobility Advisory Group should develop best practice for supporting students from minority backgrounds beyond admissions and throughout their time at university and roll this out from academic year 2017–18.


93 The Russell Group consists of 24 universities: University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, Durham University, University of Edinburgh, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow, Imperial College London, King’s College London, University of Leeds, University of Liverpool, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of Manchester, Newcastle University, University of Nottingham, University of Oxford, Queen Mary University of London, Queen’s University Belfast, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University College London, University of Warwick, and University of York.

94 The Equality Challenge Unit works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions across all four nations of the UK and in colleges in Scotland.

95 The report analysed gender, ethnicity, disability and age profiles of higher education students for the academic year 2013–14.

97 Vikki Boliver, Exploring ethnic inequalities in admission to Russell Group universities, Sociology, 50 (2) (2016), pp. 247-266

99 Demos, Rising to the Top, 2015

103 Russell Group of Universities (MIE0009)

104 IntoUniversity (MIE0026)

106 Demos, Op. cit.

107 Demos (MIE0031)

108 IntoUniversity (MIE0026)

113 Ibid.

114 Professor Jacqueline Stevenson (MIE0025)

115 Employment Related Services Association (MIE0007)

117 Universities UK, ‘Social Mobility Advisory Group’ accessed 10 June 2016

120 PM: “Time to tear down the barriers at elite universities”, Prime Minister’s Office press release, 31 January 2016

121 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (supplementary evidence) (MIE0035)




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3 August 2016