Open door to study haven

September 7, 2001

Courses designed to accommodate the needs of strictly observant religious groups are in great demand. Caroline Davis reports.

If Muhammad won't come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Muhammad." Although work-based learning and distance learning have brought higher education to many who would not have considered it, there are still groups who feel excluded. None more so than strictly observant members of religious groups.

However, universities are beginning to recognise their needs and to extend the widening participation agenda to encompass them. Ironically, in order to be more inclusive, initiatives aimed at attracting strict Muslims and Jews are becoming more exclusive.

Muslim women in Birmingham, for example, are being offered degree courses at a local community college. At Bradford University, they have the option of being taught in separate rooms from men and only by female teachers.

This autumn, two new undergraduate courses in London aimed exclusively at strictly orthodox Jewish women will open their doors. The area around Hendon, Finchley and Golders Green in north London is home to a large community of religiously observant Jews. Even so, interest in a new business studies degree offered exclusively to strictly orthodox Jewish women in Finchley took its organisers by surprise. The open evening for the course, accredited by London Guildhall University but run by Touro College in New York, was standing room only.

Touro vice-president for international programmes Geoffrey Alderman said this represented a sea change in community attitudes towards women. The fact that the women had the support and encouragement of their husbands and families to study at university level was, he said, a novelty.

Some of those at the open evening wanted to set up their own businesses. Others, such as a divorced single parent, needed a qualification to get a job. The course will cost between £750 and £1,000 a year and students will have access to LGU facilities. Although students are expected to have a year's experience studying at a religious seminary, Alderman explains that it is more a description of the type of student he hopes to attract than a prerequisite.

The syllabus, taught by male and female LGU staff, is identical to that of the regular LGU undergraduate course in business studies, but with options such as Jewish textual study and courses on the Jewish business perspective.

Alderman says Touro is determined to bring higher education to those who have been excluded because of cultural, religious or other beliefs. In New York, Touro provides campuses tailored to their local Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic communities.

Alderman believes that British universities still have a parochial view of education, which means that students have access to higher education only if they accept the prevailing model of universities.

He defines university education as something that represents an "intellectual challenge or guided self-study" - the environment in which people study is irrelevant. But he adds that the lack of single-sex courses in Britain means universities are making a mockery of access.

There were raised eyebrows when MST College in Hendon announced earlier this year that it would offer a one-year undergraduate degree in humanities to orthodox Jewish women. The £6,500 course is to be accredited by Thomas Edison State College, a New Jersey institution.

The college gives credit for prior seminary learning and compacts studies into a single year. Dean Judith Nemeth adds that she will consider students without A levels if they are of sufficient calibre, as several religious schools in the area do not have sixth forms because they expect pupils to go on to seminary and then get married. Nemeth believes the course will appeal to young Jewish women who would normally be put off by the length of the course.

"In our culture, the primary goal is to raise a family," she says. "A three or four-year degree can be daunting. If I tried to offer a three-year BEd course, I'd have no students - by 24 they'll be married with kids."

The course is aimed at students who will go on to study for postgraduate teaching qualifications or work in areas such as child psychology. A study carried out last year into increasing the participation of Muslim women in inner-city Birmingham in higher education found that the needs of this community were very similar to those of the Jewish community. Bangladeshi and Pakistani women were particularly under-represented at university level.

Birmingham City Council has provided single-sex girls' schools. Further education colleges in the area have single-sex study environments, but the issue has not been addressed at the higher education level.

Fatemeh Rabiee, professor of health promotion at the University of Central England, and David Thompson, widening participation coordinator at the University of Birmingham, Westhill, interviewed students at local colleges. They found that early marriage or traditional families where "academic education was not perceived as an important factor for women" meant many of the women had not previously gained any qualifications. Some said that not only did they feel more comfortable in a single-sex environment, but that their families stipulated it. Two said they would not have been allowed to attend a mixed-sex centre. Others said they would be comfortable with men as long as they were not Asian, as Asian men could be critical of Asian women "striving for independence".

Students also said that being able to study locally, without having to waste study or family time on travel was important. They suggested four-year higher education courses should be condensed into two years.

Business and management studies, teacher training, psychology, counselling and community studies, childcare, and religious and Islamic subjects were popular choices.

Rabiee and Thompson's report says: "Higher education providers must show flexibility in terms of recognising the experience, education and life skills of women in these communities." It adds that credit mechanisms such as Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning would help bring Muslim women into higher education.

Most access campaigns tend to focus on those excluded from higher education because of socioeconomic constraints. But Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and chair of Universities UK's widening participation strategy group, says that, because employers increasingly require higher education qualifications, those excluded from universities by their religious beliefs are becoming more prominent.

"The Jewish and Muslim communities worry about their girls mixing in wider society. In the past, they didn't need higher education as they got a career in the community without it," he explained. But as higher education is becoming more important to employers, there is a need for degree-level education to be available to such groups.

Wagner, himself Jewish, was approached by a Jewish orthodox group ten years ago when he was vice-chancellor of North London University. "We couldn't find a way to accommodate them," he reflects. "I'm pleased to see it's happening now."

Maggie Woodrow, European Access Network executive director, welcomes initiatives to increase access, but says she is slightly concerned because she likes to think of higher education as religion-free. "But you've got to start somewhere," she concedes.

Quality is a particular issue to ensure that courses for religious groups are on a par with those for more mixed groups. Woodrow adds that the issue also raises the age-old chicken and egg problem of how far higher education can change to encourage students to take part without losing its defining characteristics.


Elisa Stern, 32, grew up in Brooklyn in a strictly orthodox Jewish family. She attended single-sex primary and secondary schools and at 18 spent a year at a women-only religious seminary in Israel, where she gained a qualification to teach Biblical Hebrew and Jewish studies.

When she returned to New York, she enrolled in Touro College's Flatbush campus to take a degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on education. Her Israeli qualification counted towards her course and she attended the college two evenings a week. Male students attended on a different two evenings. During the day, she studied nursing at a hospital that was run by a Jewish organisation.

"I never sat in a classroom with male students," Elisa says. "We encourage our youth to stay in a separate environment so that they are not tempted to socialise with the opposite gender."

The all-female environment did not restrict the social aspects of her university experience. "There were girls from all over the world," she said.

Before getting married, Elisa worked as a business consultant on Wall Street. She now has three children under the age of three and is on the management committee of a local nursing home. She lives in North London.

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