Are Muslim students supported to the same extent as their non-Muslim peers?
The UK higher education sector is becoming increasingly diverse, but do we think beyond the broad BAME brush? Student engagement and widening participation work has recently focused on the 13 per cent BAME attainment gap, but we need to make sure that we’re examining equality work intersectionally, and thinking about additional levels of disadvantage that can complicate a student’s experience.
Visible and invisible
For example, religion often intersects with race: I research the experience of Muslim students, who largely belong to the wider BAME group, and they experience specific forms of inequality. My research has made clear that we need to integrate religious equality and race equality work.
In this 2018 report, Jacqueline Stevenson has highlighted the paradoxical way Muslims students are treated: they are both highly visible and invisible, because hostility and general Islamophobia are expressed in a range of different ways. In a different report, Abida Malik has called for an exploration of how policies such as Prevent impact the Muslim student experience. Other authors such as Imran Awan have described how Prevent has fostered fear on campuses as Muslim students are labelled a “suspect community”.
My own research which examines Muslim students’ sense of belonging has largely found positive academic experiences, and follow-up research shows this to be the case at other UK higher education institutions. But my research has also illuminated where universities lack provisions for Muslim students. Specifically, access to Halal food on campus, and the availability of non-alcoholic social events.
One provision in particular garnered plenty of feedback and favourable responses: Ramadan exam considerations. In some universities, including my own for the last few years, when Ramadan coincides with exams, adjustments are put in place for students who are fasting. In both 2018 and 2019, Ramadan took place between May and June, so it’s quite likely that the two periods will coincide. At my university, Muslim students have received direct emails and communication through virtual learning environments which highlighted that they could ask to take their exams in the morning if they were scheduled in the afternoon.
The rationale behind exam adjustments during Ramadan becomes clear if you ask Muslim students how they feel taking exams while fasting. They usually reply that they feel exhausted, dehydrated, and lacking in concentration, especially at the end of the day. As you’re entering the end of your 18-hour fast, it’s highly likely that attainment is impacted.
Just deal with it
In my research, when I asked students whether their university provided them with Ramadan exam adjustments, I was usually met with confusion – most didn’t realise that the provision would be possible, or that adjustments existed in some universities. Their journey through GCSEs and A-Levels had instilled in them that they just needed to deal with fasting while taking exams: it was something they had to navigate themselves – some mentioned teachers telling them to “simply not fast”.
These student responses made clear to me that Muslim students are contending with an educational system which doesn’t support their needs, and sometimes makes them choose between faith and education. It would be helpful for universities to offer the possibility for exam adjustments where feasible, even if not every Muslim student would feel the need to use them, or think they were necessary. Thinking more deeply about the intersections of race and religion would help to foster an environment where more students can flourish and feel that their values are respected by their university.