Righting the balance

Muslims make up 7 per cent of the UK population and 15 per cent of 16-24-year-olds, but only 0.5 per cent of students at Oxford. The COSARAF Foundation joins with St Anne’s to start the process of change

Back in 1986, an ambitious over-confident young student from a comprehensive school decided that he would apply to Oxford University. He wasn’t alone; ten others from his school, urged on by teachers who wanted the best for their students, applied to Oxford and Cambridge. The young student got a place, admittedly by the skin of his teeth, to study PPE at St Anne’s College – one of his friends got a place at Balliol and two others went to Cambridge. Not a bad result for a comprehensive school, even one from Surrey.

You will have guessed that I was that young student. When I set my sights on Oxford, like most applicants I worried that I wasn’t bright enough; I worried that I might not fit in and I worried that I might not be able to cope with the stress. However, I never really worried that Oxford wasn’t for someone like me. Sadly, that is the case today for too many young people from minority ethnic and lower socio-economic backgrounds. This means that the university, like so many others, is not attracting the full spread of talent that it should be welcoming to benefit from its amazing support.

Wind forward 30+ years and I am now honoured to support the trustees of the COSARAF Foundation in launching an exciting new university scholarship scheme to support young Muslim students at four leading academic institutions, which includes St Anne’s and which was launched at College at the end of April. I am so proud that my old college, which welcomed me so very warmly all those years ago and supported me so well, is at the forefront of this important new initiative as part of its wider commitment to become the most diverse college in Oxford.

David Lammy MP’s well-publicised campaign highlighting the worrying lack of young black students being accepted at Oxford University and Stormzy’s scholarship programme for black students at Cambridge University have brought to public attention the important issues of access and diversity at our top universities. The COSARAF Foundation has focussed on the position of young Muslim students. Why? Because according to the Oxford University Islamic Society, Muslims comprise 7 per cent of the UK population and 15 per cent of 16-24 year olds, but only 0.5 per cent of students at Oxford. From our other work at the 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. 

Put simply, “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 Muslims communities. Evidence shows that ‘students from some minority ethnic groups are significantly less likely to attend higher status institutions. … For average applications from Pakistani candidates, the model predicted seven additional rejections per 100 applications compared with the number from comparable white British applications.” 

Muslim and other minority ethnic students also know, and the evidence unfortunately backs them up, that they probably won’t do as well as their peers even if they do get a place. The Higher Education Academy’s 2012 report 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.”  

There are also additional pressures on Muslim students, particularly around student finance, with the government’s promise in 2014 to introduce Shariah-compliant students loans still not having been delivered.

This all really matters. It matters for reasons of fairness and equity but also because of the importance of higher education to social mobility and to integration. 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 graduate and undergraduate scholarships to Muslim students from poor backgrounds, and preferably to first-generation university students, at St Anne’s College Oxford University, Cambridge University, Warwick University and the Open University at Cambridge Muslim College. In addition to funding support of up to £10,000 per year, each Scholar will receive a package of tailored support including a personal mentor, a paid summer internship in a leading charity and access to a leadership support programme.

These scholarships will provide long-term support to develop leadership within UK Muslim communities, across all walks of life, to enable enduring integration and cohesion, as well as a commitment to public and community service. With a split between students on undergraduate courses and those pursuing studies with a view to becoming faith leaders, the Foundation’s overall scheme is an investment in the future of UK Muslim communities and wider society as a whole. 

This programme represents a significant and ground-breaking package of support to promote access to leading universities in the UK for Muslim students from working class backgrounds, in line with the COSARAF Foundation’s commitments to enabling young people to realise their potential and building strong and cohesive communities.

I was delighted that, with the strong personal backing of Principal Helen King, St Anne’s Fellows gave their backing to this new scheme – and to hosting the launch event as well. I have also been grateful for the support provided by Tom Ilube CBE, Honorary Advisory Fellow, whose leadership on matters of diversity at the College has been superb. 

St. Anne’s has a proud history of inclusion and equity – and bravery in challenging unfairness and social barriers. As a comprehensive school student, somewhat daunted by the history and reputation of Oxford, I was encouraged to apply and supported throughout my time by reassuring, tolerant and understanding staff across College. My fervent hope is that these new scholarships, coupled with the College’s wider drive to properly widen access to all communities, will enable young Muslims – and others from every possible background – who today might dismiss the thought of applying to somewhere like St Anne’s to think again and recognise that they have just as much right as anyone to study at this wonderful place.

First published in The Ship


Vikki Boliver (2013), How Fair is Access to More Prestigious British Universities?, British Journal of Sociology 64 (2): 195-382

Philip Noden, Michael Shiner, and Tariq Modood (2014), University offer rates for candidates from different ethnic categories, Oxford Review of Education 40 (3)

Higher Education Academy (2012), Black and minority ethnic student degree retention and attainment

Jacqueline Stevenson, Sean Demack, Bernie Stiell, Muna Abdi, Lisa Clarkson, Farhana Ghaffar, Shaima Hassan (2017) The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims, Social Mobility Commission