Last week’s State of the Nation 2016 report by the UK’s Social Mobility Commission once again highlighted how much work there still is to do in getting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university.
Part of the reason that progress is slow is that, in some communities, there are cultural as well as economic factors at play. A case in point is British-Bangladeshi girls. “Maria” is the first in her family to take the step. She has passion for her subjects, is on course for top A-level grades and hopes to become a lawyer. She has a family background of high aspiration, and yet my research into the attitudes towards higher education among second-generation British-Bangladeshi girls in their final school year highlights that students such as Maria fear not fitting in: “We get a bit frightened when we go to a university and we don’t see many Asians,” she explains.
There has undoubtedly been a rise in the number of working-class, ethnic minority students attending universities in the UK, but certain communities remain very under-represented at elite Russell Group universities, which often provide the key to social mobility.
For the students I interviewed, fear of not fitting in is compounded by worries that their religious identity and beliefs will be challenged. As Nilima puts it: “We’re used to everyone respecting our views…We’re not used to our beliefs being challenged, in the sense that someone opposes [them].”
The increasing scrutiny suffered by British Muslims can understandably heighten parental concerns. Noorjahan relays her parents’ worries about her applying for universities outside London as revolving around her safety.
Maria is the youngest of seven siblings, none of whom attended university. Her parents speak little English. Unusually for someone from her social and ethnic background, she secured conditional offers from five Russell Group universities, yet she speaks about feeling dislocated when she visited her first-choice institution with a teacher while other applicants attended with all their family. “It was all so daunting,” she says. “[The other students have] got that support, and you just feel like: ‘Wow, I’m so out of place here!’”
Parents who have not themselves been to university can provide only limited support. Asked about the conversations she has had at home, Maria says: “I don’t think [my parents] even know the word for ‘university’.” When she expresses any anxiety, they respond: “Are you sure you want to go? You don’t need to do it.”
Zaynab’s mum expects her to attend university, but also shares fears about whether she will succeed academically: “She thinks I might not pass…and I’m going all the way outside of London. [She worries:] ‘What if something happens?’ and she thinks it’s going to be a waste of money if I drop out.”
Such parental reactions can frustrate the girls themselves, who are trying to break new ground in their communities. As Nilima puts it: “I think that when the Bangladeshis first came [to the UK] it was just about making sure that the boys [did well]…so the shift today takes a bit of getting used to.”
My interviewees all showed a great sense of agency in navigating through their numerous choices, getting advice from teachers and family friends they strategically sought out. And all had been involved in widening participation programmes, which undoubtedly made them feel slightly more comfortable about the transition. But provision is inconsistent, especially outside London.
Effective ways of welcoming students into university life start before they even apply and continue well into their undergraduate courses. Good programmes include taster lectures, student mentors, summer schools, confidence-building workshops and careers advice.
Engagement between UK universities and their Muslim populations could also be improved by ensuring that Islamic societies are not viewed with suspicion but are seen as an integral part of the community. They are a great way of making people feel welcome and, potentially, of showcasing Muslim role models to other aspiring students.
All such measures can help in the long struggle to make the reality match the political rhetoric on social mobility.
Sally Brian is a teacher in an inner-city London school and recently completed an MA at the UCL Institute of Education.