Northern Ireland's Department for Employment and Learning has refused to change its student support reforms to avoid discrimination against Muslims.
The National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland argued that Muslim students could suffer because their religious beliefs prevented them taking out interest-bearing loans.
The DEL says change could be achieved only at "excessive cost", and might therefore discriminate against a far greater number of students. Its report says 1999 figures show that only 21 of the 34,000 Northern Ireland undergraduates were Muslim, with a further 50 to 100 who might have been of Muslim origin.
Brian Slevin, convenor of NUS-USI, criticised the department for failing to end the "discriminatory" practice. He added: "We are pleased that the minister, Sean Farren, has accepted our view that childcare grants should be extended to students over 55."
The DEL was also warned of age discrimination in the requirement for 50 to 54-year-olds to prove they intend to return to work after receiving a student loan. The department will point this out to the government investigation of the social security dimension of student support.
The DEL also plans to discover whether women are worse hit than men by student loan repayments.
* Northern Ireland's further education colleges are attempting to make the Good Friday Agreement an on-campus reality.
Draft schemes, focusing on the need to promote equality of opportunity and good relations, have to be submitted to the province's Equality Commission by next month. Every policy initiative has to be evaluated for its impact on the divided communities.