by Zain Sardar and Amira Samatar
The social mobility charity, the Aziz Foundation, has published a major new report examining the progression challenges encountered by British Muslims aspiring to PGT studies. We consider this a timely intervention, in the context of a rapidly changing student demography, indicated in the popular usage of such terms as ‘hyper-diversification’ (Atherton and Mazhari, 2020) within HE policy discourse, and corroborated in recent projections by the professional membership body, Advance HE. In the wake of these demographic trends, a recent TASO publication (Andrews et al, 2023) reports that the sector is gripped by a high degree of uncertainty over the most expedient institutional approaches to adopt in dealing with disparities in progression and attainment.
Transitions: British Muslims between UG and PGT studies will be of benefit to HE practitioners, researchers and forward thinking institutions willing to engage in an analysis of the granular experiences of discrete, minoritised communities. That is, decision and policy makers open to targeted interventions, as opposed to the one-size fits all, universal approach that delineates the current comfort zone in HE. We are particularly concerned with the direction in which the widening participation agenda will seek to evolve, encouraging the better incorporation of the access needs of faith communities in any future trajectory.
The progression challenge
The policy exceptionalism that discounts British Muslims from HE regulatory frameworks and formulas helps to sustain the equality gaps that hinder academic progression. To expand on this theme: recently there has been a greater regulatory focus on disparities in relation to ethnicity, which is certainly welcome. For example, there is a consensus that the most pressing sector wide challenges centre on the degree-awarding gap, as mentioned above, and access to doctoral studies for minoritised communities (OfS, 2020). However, a lacuna is still visible: the disadvantages that accrue around faith – as an operative dimension of the British Muslim identity – are still not part of the ‘intersectional mix’ making it onto the regulatory agenda (although we should acknowledge that the new ‘Equalities of Opportunity Risk Register’, established to regulate the student experience, does make mention of Muslim students) (OfS, 2023).
The progression challenge, however, is very evident and borne out in the Office for Students’ (OfS) own data dashboard. It indicates a drop off in British Muslim participation between the undergraduate and postgraduate taught level (from 12% to 8%)(OfS, 2021-22). Furthermore, this is not replicated amongst those from non-faith backgrounds or other control groups, such as Christian students.
We can thus detect in national datasets the contours of an entrenched social mobility fault line. The sector’s response to this is critical, as dealing with these disparities will necessitate enhancing the current access regime. It will need to build in more responsiveness to the forms of disadvantage that holds back intersectional communities – such as British Muslims – from participation at the postgraduate level.
An intersectionality of disadvantage
Transitions centres the testimonies of British Muslims, deploying a Critical Race Theory (CRT) methodology and qualitative analysis to examine the lived experiences of candidates for the Aziz Foundation’s flagship Masters Scholarship programme.
The charity has awarded over 560 scholarships since its inception in 2016, and commenced surveying its candidates in 2019/20, subsequently undertaking this exercise on an annual basis. In having access and utilising the Foundation’s rich seam of data, we would like to position the report as a form of community-based research. From our perspective, participating survey respondents are co-producers of knowledge, supporting an investigation into the factors that inhibit educational progression, as well as shining a light upon the reasons why British Muslims wish to pursue PGT study.
Moreover, the key concept of ‘intersectionality’ is deployed in order to explore the British Muslim identity through the testimonies (or autoethnographies, in which respondents are invited to reflect on their own condition within HE) of scholarship candidates. As both faith and ethnicity, and the interaction between the two, determines the experiences of, and hardships faced, by British Muslims, this is a crucial focus area. We emphasise this as a ‘hidden’ dynamic, as this type of intersectional disadvantage – in its granularity – is rarely acknowledged in its complexity by HEIs within institutional strategies.
Pipeline issues and recommendations
Transitions explores why the transition to PGT is of so much significance for British Muslims, as well as the wider sector. It has ramifications beyond the low number of this demographic who progress all the way into academia as researchers and members of the professoriate. For instance, Masters programmes are thought of as a way to redress imbalances in social capital, providing minoritised communities with opportunities to widen networks for professional development. This is important in relation to labour market outcomes, taking into account the underrepresentation of senior leaders across professions and industries of a British Muslim heritage.
More widely, we would like to ask institutions to reflect on ways in which they can mend the ‘broken bridge’ of PGT – and so fortify the academic and education-to-work pipeline. Some of our report recommendations for institutions and the sector provide a starting point:
- Amongst HEIs, there ought to be parity of esteem and financial resources between pre-entry widening participation and postgraduate widening participation
- HEIs to be proactive in incorporating ‘British Muslim students’ as a disadvantaged group in Access and Participation Plans (APPs), considering institutional context
- The ‘broken pipeline’ at PGT ought to be bridged with appropriate funding opportunities such as ring fenced scholarships
We urge institutions and practitioners to read our report carefully and consider our full set of recommendations.
Ultimately we believe that the future of the widening participation agenda can be effectively shaped through institutions that take the initiative, developing innovations and extending access to constituencies at the sharp end of the intersectionalities of disadvantage.
Transitions: British Muslims between undergraduate and PGT studies can be accessed here.
Dr Zain Sardar is a joint programme manager at the Aziz Foundation. He leads on the Foundation’s engagement with its university partners and higher education stakeholders. As well as completing his PhD in law at Birkbeck, University of London, he has previously worked in higher education administration and policy. Zain also currently sits on the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education external advisory board.
Amira Samatar, MA Ed., AFHEA, is a postgraduate researcher whose academic interests centre around the educational experiences and journeys of racially minoritised students in British universities, with a specific focus on Black British women’s experiences beyond the postgraduate level. Amira is an associate at MA Education Consultancy and is committed to progressing social justice agendas within the higher education sector and to this end, increasing opportunities for Black and Muslim students
Andrews, S, Stephenson, J. Adefila, A et al (June 2023) Approaches to addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap, TASO Atherton, G and Mazhari, T (2020) Preparing for hyper-diversity: London’s student population in 2030 Access HE