UK National Union of Students (NUS) publishes report on the experience of Muslim students in 2017-18

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In November 2017, the National Union of Students (NUS) Black Students’ Campaign and the NUS Women’s Campaign launched the Muslim Students’ Survey “to provide a holistic understanding of the issues facing Muslim students in further and higher education, and to address questions such as “What does it mean to be Muslim in Britain today?”” It was also an attempt to shed light on the failings of the NUS in recent years, although its primary aim was “to capture the voices of the most marginalised students in our movement and restore some agency back to Muslims”[1].

The survey was prompted by increasing concerns Islamophobia was becoming normalised in British society, which the NUS states is illustrated by the recent ‘Punish a Muslim Day’ letter and package campaign, and also by the scrutiny and racism directed towards Muslims in public positions, including towards NUS officers[2]. Islamophobia is institutionalised at every level of society[3].

There are an estimated 330,000 Muslim students in higher education and further education in the UK. However, the resulting report on the survey, ‘The experience of Muslim students in 2017-8, notes that there seems to be little understanding about the ‘Muslim’ student experience and the needs of the Muslim communities as a whole[4]. 38% of respondents to the survey felt that their students’ union understands their needs as a Muslim student and 36% agree that they feel represented by their union. However, the report notes “39 per cent of respondents could neither agree nor disagree that their union reflects the views of Muslim students, which may highlight need for clarity around student union representation and democratic accountability” and also highlights the need for more focus on accessibility and inclusion[5].

As such, this research “is the first comprehensive piece of work devoted entirely to capturing the experiences of Muslim students and sabbatical officers in colleges and universities throughout the UK”[6], and aims “to respond to the lived experiences of Muslim students, which are deeply gendered, racialised, and class-stratified”[7].

The survey, which received 578 responses returned several key findings[8].

The Prevent counter-extremism initiative

One finding of the survey “reinforce[s] existing concerns about the effect of the Prevent duty on Muslim students and reaffirm[s] our [NUS’s] calls to abolish Prevent as a whole. One in three respondents, for example, reported having felt negatively affected by Prevent and almost a half of those affected (43 per cent) felt unable to express their views of disengaged from political debate altogether”[9].

For some, this had reduced their willingness, and their ability (30% of respondents affected by Prevent had experienced barriers to organising speakers and events on campus) to participate in student activities, such as political activism, and to offer their opinions on important matter affecting their education[10]. While Muslim students reported being generally happy to be involved in discussions on racism, Islamophobia, and provisions for Muslim students, they were more likely to report being uncomfortable or unsure about debating Palestine, the Prevent initiative, and terrorism[11]. The majority of respondents disagree with lecturers and educational institutions monitoring students’ opinions and behaviours and online activity[12].

Male respondents to the survey were found to be more likely to be wary of Prevent[13]. Muslim students not wearing religious garments were among those least likely to have been affected by Prevent, a group which also includes those not involved with their institution’s student union and also international students. The report notes that, “The correlation between the visibility of Muslim women and how they are affected by Prevent is notable, lending weight to arguments that Prevent magnifies a variety of existing biases and prejudice among staff who exercise the duty”[14].

Of those Muslim students who participate in their student union, respondents who have been affected by Prevent are more likely to disagree that their students’ union understands their needs or reflects their views. With regards to the NUS, criticism of NUS events from Muslim students tends not to focus on Prevent, but instead on “access and the politicised nature of Muslim identity at policy and democratic events”, although this criticism was more likely to come from those who had been affected by the Prevent initiative[15].

The report states that the NUS believes that Prevent is fundamentally flawed and discriminatory”[16].

Even where Prevent might not be directly correlated to feelings of discomfort among Muslim students, it is clear from their report that for some, worries about being questioned around their faith and a feeling of being unwelcome would stop them from engaging in their student union and related activities, especially in roles which are politicised rather than purely academic. The report notes that there is room for further research into this and that more effective media coverage might encourage Muslim students to engage more. Some respondents also expressed concerns that they would not be able to represent non-Muslim students if they were to be in positions of leadership and/or representation[17].

Hate crime and harassment

One in three respondents to the survey reported having experienced some type of hate crime or harassment at their place of study, while over half the respondents had experienced some form of online abuse. Participants also observed that some of these incidents coincided with recent acts of terrorism. 28% of those who had experienced Islamophobia said it occurred while they were engaged in activism challenging Islamophobia[18]. These responses were also heavily gendered, as women wearing traditional Islamic garments were “significantly more likely to be very worried about being abused or attacked”, a trend that followed in most of the difficulties Muslim students experience[19].

The survey revealed concerning statistics about LGBT+ Muslim students; the number of respondents in this category was very low however, “29 received 15 had experienced an incident at their place of study and 11 were fairly or very worried about being targeted”. The report notes that, in accordance with existing studies, “This suggests that students with intersecting identities may be attacked both as a result of defining as, in this case, Muslim and also LGBT+”[20].

Half of the survey respondents had experienced some form of abuse or harassment online, “primarily religious attacks and attacks against their personal views”, and primarily on Twitter and Facebook. Out of those who had experienced this, “there was an even split on whether or not they tried to keep a low profile online to avoid abuse or harassment”[21].

The NUS stated that the findings of their survey “are deeply concerning in that they highlight how rampant anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia is within the educations sector (and society as a whole) … This also begs the question about what work is being undertaken by institutions to safeguard Muslim students against racism in or around campus”[22].

The report notes that “Awareness of the Prevent strategy and concern about Islamophobic abuse in all forms, including online, are linked”, as “It is notable that students who lack any awareness of Prevent are more likely to have never have experienced abuse or crime at their place of study”[23].

The report also found that those with an understanding of Prevent were more likely to report Islamophobic abuse or hate crime to their student sabbatical officer or Islamic Society (ISoc), although the likelihood of them reporting it somewhere else is not affected by whether they have an understanding of Prevent or not[24].

In addition, the report found that “awareness of Prevent correlates with students having less trust in the ability of their educational institution, students’ union and NUS to respond appropriately to allegations of Islamophobia”. Knowledge of Prevent also affects respondents’ understandings of media portrayals of Muslims as not positive, although 91% of respondents agreed that Muslims and Islam are not portrayed positively in the media, while 89% do not believe that attacks on Muslims were reported equally in the press when compared with attacks on other groups[25].

The report states, “Experiences of hate-motivated incidents or crimes is widespread, and under-reported. The amount of reporting needs to increase so that the scale of the problem can be understood and addressed. Pathways to reporting incidents vary, and NUS and student union interventions to tackle hate crime should reflect this. Similarly, NUS and students’ unions should take into consideration the impact of media portrayals on Muslim students’ willingness to take on leadership roles”[26].

Prevent’s significant impact on the Muslim student experience

The effect of Prevent on respondents’ responses to Islamophobia clearly demonstrates the significant impact that the initiative has on the Muslim student experience. The report writes of the Prevent initiative, “Prevent is a key issue for respondents’ ability to engage meaningfully with the structures of their institutions, unions and NUS, in particular around democratic engagement … being affected by Prevent accompanies an erosion in trust of institutions who have responsibility to combat Islamophobia”[27].

Service provision

The report found that 90% of the respondents had a prayer space or mosque on or near there campus. However, only 68% of their respondents had access to halal food at or near their place of study, and only 28% of students were clear they had a Muslim chaplain or cleric (only 24% were sure they had a Muslim imam at their educational institution)[28].

A third of respondents said that they do not have a safe space or forum on campus where they can discuss any issues affecting them and even more students were unsure whether they did or not. The Islamic Society (ISoc) was identified as a significant place used by students as a safe space and the report notes, “It is concerning that it is primarily Muslim-only spaces that are considered safe spaces for these students, which may highlight a need for more cultural competency in other forums and services”[29].

The report identifies several areas where improvement in service provision can be made and concludes, “The accessibility and inclusion of both formal and informal learning, and of extra-curricular experiences, is a key concern for all respondents, and as a consequence NUS”[30].

Recommendations

The NUS state they are looking forward to working with activists, Islamic societies, and relevant sector bodies to implement the recommendations of their report “and to create a more inclusive environment for all Muslim students”[31]. The report will also inform activities in the NUS’ Race equity Plan, “which aims to tackle institutional racism and create lasting organisational change” rather than just offering “tokenistic tweets and distant whispers within the student movement”[32].

The NUS Women’s Campaign will be publishing a separate briefing on the specific experiences of Muslim Women students in the next couple of weeks[33].

The report itself makes a number of recommendations related to their findings.

With regards to Prevent, the report states that the NUS should make clear when campaigning around the Prevent strategy with evidence that it impedes students’ experience and engagement. It states further research into the effect of Prevent on students is needed, especially into “the link between Muslim students’ identities being visible and the impact of the Prevent duty, and how the Prevent strategy serves to dampen students’ engagement in political and civic functions”[34].

The report recommends that the NUS needs to do more to engage Muslim students with their events and activities, and to enable them their participation. This includes understanding the barriers Muslim students currently face in participation and how issues specific to them, such as Islamophobia and the misrepresentation of Islam in the media, can be addressed, improving its inclusivity[35].

The report states, “Students’ unions need best practice guidelines on encouraging the reporting of hate crimes, including Islamophobic incidents” and provide support to those who experience anti-Muslim hate crime, including to those who do not wish to involve the police or the justice system[36].

Student unions should engage more proactively with Islamic Societies in order to provide them with tailored support. The NUS should also support students’ unions to enable them to support their faith societies, “with a focus on preventing and tackling hate crime and how these societies may support students in relation to the Prevent duty”[37].

[1] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[2] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[3] NUS, 2018, 10.

[4] NUS, 2018, 5.

[5] NUS, 2018, 15-16.

[6] NUS, 2018, 10.

[7] NUS, 2018, 11.

[8] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018; NUS, 2018, 7.

[9] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[10] NUS, 2018, 12, 13, 21.

[11] NUS, 2018, 14.

[12] NUS, 2018, 12, 13.

[13] NUS, 2018, 12.

[14] NUS, 2018, 13; Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[15] NUS, 2018, 13.

[16] NUS, 2018, 12.

[17] NUS, 2018, 15-17.

[18] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018; NUS, 2018, 18.

[19] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018; NUS, 2018, 18, 20.

[20] NUS, 2018, 18-19.

[21] NUS, 2018, 19-20.

[22] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[23] NUS, 2018, 14.

[24] NUS, 2018, 14.

[25] NUS, 2018, 14, 18, 20.

[26] NUS, 2018, 20.

[27] NUS, 2018, 14.

[28] NUS, 2018, 17.

[29] NUS, 2018, 17, 20.

[30] NUS, 2018, 17-18.

[31] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[32] NUS, 2018, 10.

[33] Ghani and Nagdee, 2018.

[34] NUS, 2018, 22.

[35] NUS, 2018, 22-23.

[36] NUS, 2018, 23.

[37] NUS, 2018, 23-24.

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Sources

Ghani, H. and Nagdee, I. (2018) ‘Our research into the experiences of #MuslimsInEducation’. [online] 18 March. https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/articles/our-research-into-the-experiences-of-muslimsineducation. [Accessed 2 April 2018].

NUS. (2018) ‘The experience of Muslim students in 2017-18’. London: National Union of Students. The report is available here.