In June of last year1, The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) was pleased to hear that the government had committed to providing an alternative student finance model alongside the introduction of its life-long entitlement program in 2025. As a representative of 120,000 Muslim students in both higher and further education, we are disappointed that the rollout of this scheme is delayed once again. In 2013, the former Rt Hon. Member of Parliament for Witney and then Prime Minister, David Cameron, told the World Islamic Economic Forum that “never again should a Muslim in Britain feel unable to go to university because they cannot get a student loan— simply because of their religion”.
Unfortunately, since that address was made, there have been a multitude of Muslim students who have felt that their aspiration for higher education is incompatible with their religious belief. A report by the Muslim Census found that over 12,000 students are forgoing university entirely or are forced to fund their own study2. This is not a problem that we can just ignore, the 2021 Census has shown that Muslims now account for 6.5% of the UK population and account for roughly ⅓ of the increase in the last decade3. The Muslim Council of Britain’s analysis has also indicated 40% of Muslims live in the most deprived fifth of local authority districts4. This further highlights the inability of many of these students to self-fund their education, especially at the height of the current cost of living crisis.
A decade of Muslim students are tired of empty promises and false broken dreams. At FOSIS, we have had countless students reach out to us concerned about their next steps post further education and those in higher education in hardship due to having to self-fund. Some of this burden has been lightened through community grant and scholarship funds, as well as students accessing other interest free credit facilities. However, this is an unsustainable solution that is not available to every student.
Ibrahim*, a mechanical engineering student at University College London (UCL), has funded his study through a combination of personal loans from relatives and friends, as well as part time employment. He said, “Throughout my second year of University I had to work two jobs to support myself financially. This has had an impact on my mental and physical wellbeing, as well as affecting my academic achievements. My 9 year-old laptop broke down, but I was unable to replace it due to not having the necessary funds. On occasion, I have also had to skip lectures and seminars due to being unable to afford the transportation costs into University. I feel let down that this is the only option available to me and that there has been no progress on a student finance package that works for Muslim students.”
Umar Azzam, President of Stepney All Saints Islamic Society, said “Lack of Alternative Student Finance is a major conflict with my academic and religious interests. During my time applying for UCAS I had to consider compromising my religious values to pursue higher education. After speaking to many Imams and people of knowledge within my community, it has only further added to my anxiety of not being able to achieve my ambitions. What made this worse was the fact that my school teachers were unable to provide any answers to my questions. This is a pressing issue not only for myself, but also Muslims across the nation suffer from.”
Mohamed Xamza, a student at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, has funded his studies through work. “The biggest difficulty is the mental strain placed upon you throughout the entire academic year. This is especially the case when you know that you need to pay an instalment of thousands of pounds in the immediate future, and if this is not paid , I might lose my place at University or have to interrupt my studies. This doesn’t allow you to fully focus on your studies and is an immense burden to carry. You can’t afford to take in extracurricular activity that forms the core of many students’ University experience nor can you partake in academia and research that would further your medical career. Many times I have been forced to study through recordings at increased playback speed in order to increase my productivity and lighten my schedule. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is damaging to a student’s life.”
Jakir Ahmed, the Vice President for Student Affairs at FOSIS, said “Many of my predecessors have worked on this same campaign. Over the last decade we have seen very little progress on this issue nor much concern from ministers to demonstrate that this is a priority. Muslim students are amongst the highest achievers in the country yet they are being stifled by this lack of access to higher education. We call on the government to commit to the original timeline given for an alternative student finance model, as well as pledge to work with scholars and experts in Islamic finance to ensure the Muslim community has full faith in this new package. We also urge the government to engage in focus groups with students, to establish that this does not place them at any disadvantage to their peers.”
Ihsan Kabir, a student at Central Foundation Boys School, said “The lack of Alternative Student Finance has burdened myself and those around me. Over the course of the UCAS process, I had to spend some time considering how the current system clashes with my faith. In fact, before speaking to my local Imam, I had considered not going to university at all. I know that many in my community have had issues with this problem; likewise for Muslim students across the country. It certainly added to the already anxiety-inducing experience of applying to Higher Education.”
Mohammed Rejwan Miah, a year 13 student, said “The current student finance system puts me in a predicament that thousands of Muslim students across the country face each year: choosing between my religion or my future. For most Muslims at first glance, it seems clear cut, university is not an option. From Year 12, I only looked towards apprenticeships as an acceptable option for my future. However, it seemed as though I was alone in this decision. UCAS seems to have no guidance over Shari’ah-compliant student loans, neither did my school teachers provide me with alternative pathways to university, not at their fault, but because there is no other way to have both my education and my religion in sync.”
In a personal capacity, Adi Sawalha, President of Queen Mary Students Union, said “Our University is in the heart of one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with a 2022 study finding it to be the local authority with the highest level of child poverty5. Despite these circumstances, our institution (which is one of the highest ranked Universities in the country) is home to many students from our locality. There is an abundance of talent that is being restricted through the current lack of alternative student finance. We have seen the positive reaction the community has had to a £1,500 University bursary provided by Tower Hamlets Council, demonstrating the need for increased financial assistance for struggling students6. I urge the government to please reconsider plans to further delay this new alternative student finance product and meet the growing demand and need as soon as possible.”
The Vice President for Further Education at FOSIS, Samiul Hussain, said “My work within the Federation involves supporting Muslim FE students. The issue of student finance is a concern that comes up again and again, and we have recently delivered a student finance guidance seminar at an FE institute, at the request of senior leadership. Muslim students do not have many options in funding their study. Unfortunately, Islamic finance companies do not have the capacity to fund the entire Muslim student demographic. As well as this, many students want more support and information to guide them through their applications – and this is lacking from UCAS and the government. As a result of this, most institutions and school leadership teams feel they do not have the training or awareness to deal with these issues.”
It is about time that promises that were made to Muslim students a decade ago are delivered without them being sideline or hamstrung by grandiloquence. We thank Baron John Sharkey for his amendment which will aim to facilitate sharia-compliant financial services to students within six months of the act passing.
If you are a representative of an ISoc or organisation, please support the amendment through signing the following letter which will be sent to Minister Baroness Penn.
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* Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality
- Office for National Statistics (ONS) – Religion, England and Wales: Census 2021