'Muslim students shouldn't feel that Oxbridge isn't for them'

We need our universities to work even harder to attract talent from all communities, writes Farouq Sheikh

Farouq Sheikh

How do we get more Muslims into Oxbridge?

Muslims make up 7 per cent of the UK population and 15 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds. So why do Muslims only make up 0.5 per cent of students at the University of Oxford? And, possibly more importantly, how can schools, parents and others encourage more young people from Muslim communities to consider applying to our top universities?

David Lammy MP’s well-publicised campaign highlighting the worrying lack of young black students being accepted at Oxford and Stormzy’s scholarship programme for black students at the University of Cambridge have brought to public attention the important issues of access and diversity at our top universities.

Put simply, according to one respected study, “access to Russell Group universities is far from ‘fair’”’ for those from poorer backgrounds and those from certain ethnic minorities, particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi, which comprise the majority of UK Muslim communities.

From our other work at the COSARAF Foundation supporting young Muslims, we know that far too many bright and capable young students in Muslim communities simply don’t feel they will be welcomed by universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Universities must reach out to ethnic minorities

The Social Mobility Commission’s recent report painted a stark picture of the consequences of this issue:

"Inequitable access to high-status universities, compounded by young Muslims having significantly lower degree attainment than their white non-Muslim peers, inhibits subsequent access to high-status employment and thus has direct implications for social mobility. The practices and policies of higher education are at times enacted in ways which feel discriminatory or racist. These practices are often under-challenged or under-addressed, which can contribute to young Muslims feeling unsupported or not accessing support. This can, in turn, result in them aiming low, and thus being unable to achieve their potential."

Against this backdrop, and given its commitment to enabling young people to realise their potential, the COSARAF Foundation has launched the Sheikh Family Scholarship programme. The programme will provide scholarships to Muslim students from poor backgrounds at four top universities. In addition to funding, each student will receive a package of tailored support, including a mentor, a paid internship and leadership development. As well as this scholarship programme, the foundation is already providing hardship grants to students of all backgrounds – and we call on other philanthropists from all communities to consider how they can help. Indeed, please come and talk to us to see how we can spread this programme to as many young people in need as possible.

However, the scholarships can only be a very small part of the support that is needed. We need our universities to work even harder to attract talent from all communities, especially ethnic minority communities underrepresented in higher education. 

We need schools in all communities to be more ambitious for all of their students. Schools and teachers also need to recognise that, as important as academic success is to university entry, many young people from minority backgrounds need a lot more personalised pastoral support to be encouraged and supported to apply to the very best universities. 

We also need to help parents in Muslim and other minority ethnic communities to understand the difference that securing a place in a higher status university can make to their children’s futures. Parents and other community leaders need to support and encourage their young people in securing a place at such institutions – and to find out more about such universities if they don’t know about them properly or have concerns about them for their children.

Every parent has concerns when their child leaves for university; that is only natural. However, we all need to ensure that no one reinforces the view that certain universities aren’t "for the likes of us". If young Muslims feel that top academic institutions are closed to them, the long-term risks of fuelling alienation and isolation at a time when we need to build bridges between communities more than ever are far too serious to be ignored.

The Scholarship is part of a wider COSARAF package of support for poorer students. Each student will receive up to £10,000 annually towards the cost of their tuition fees and living expenses. There will be one award per year for the next three years at St Anne’s College, Oxford; the University of Warwick; and the Cambridge Muslim College – and a series of smaller awards at any University of Cambridge college, administered by Downing College.  The COSARAF Foundation’s Hardship Grants provide support to students of all backgrounds in financial hardship of up to £2,500. More details are available at www.cosaraf.org   

Farouq Sheikh is a trustee of the COSARAF Foundation


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Farouq Sheikh

Farouq Sheikh is a trustee of the COSARAF Foundation

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