UK universities do not acknowledge problem of Islamophobia on campuses, report says

A report from London Metropolitan University should be a “springboard” for change across the HE sector, according to the university’s vice-chancellor

Universities in the UK do not acknowledge “the growth of Islamophobia on their campuses”, a report from London Metropolitan University has argued – and the university’s vice-chancellor urged others in her position to use the findings as a “springboard” for change.

The report, produced by London Metropolitan’s (LMU) recently established Centre for Equity and Inclusion and written by Sofia Akel, accused universities of offering Muslim students little more than “empty platitudes” on tackling Islamophobia. A survey of Muslim students at LMU found that one in four had been asked to defend wearing Muslim garments on campus.

LMU last year became the first UK HEI to adopt the working definition of Islamophobia as authored by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims. Speaking in November, after the adoption, LMU vice-chancellor Lynn Dobbs said it “shouldn’t be a controversial decision”, adding she hoped “we will be the first of many universities to adopt the working definition”.

The definition was published in 2018 by the APPG co-chaired by Anna Soubry and Wes Streeting, whose foreword singled out “British Muslims students who fail to secure entry offers from Russell Group universities” as a “real and measurable” effect of Islamophobia in Britain.

Every institution has its own unique culture, and I hope the institutionalised report can be used as a springboard by institutions to begin their own internal discussions and work on Islamophobia, supporting positive change across the sector
Prof Lynn Dobbs, London Metropolitan University

The report includes findings of a survey of 100 Muslim students. Over 25% report having had to defend the wearing of religious garments whilst on campus, describing this as having impacted their sense of safety on campus – and 16% feel unsafe wearing identifiably Islamic garments. Around 11% of Muslim staff responded to the survey: 39% believe that Islamophobia is normalised at LMU, and one staff member reported that a colleague boasted “about their involvement in persuading a Muslim student to convert away from Islam”.

The report calls for universities to embed Islamophobia into “institutional vocabulary… codes of conduct, and related behavioural policies” – and make it easier for Muslim staff and students to report and evidence racism, including “subtle forms of racial and religious discrimination such as microaggressions”. Universities should overhaul complaint procedures, it adds.

It also suggests human resource departments assess recruitment practices and positions of Muslim staff, and states universities should “should accommodate staff and students participating in religious practices and holidays, such as Ramadan”.

A 2018 NUS survey of nearly 600 Muslim students at UK universities reported that one in three respondents had experienced “abuse or crime at their place of study” and one in five “verbal abuse in person”.

There is a substantial difference in degree attainment by students’ religion or belief. Overall 76.3% of students received a first or 2:1 degree compared to 64.9% of Muslim students, according to figures collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and published in a report by Advance HE in March 2020. At institutions with over 12% of students identifying as Muslim, the attainment gap was eight percentage points, compared to 19 percentage points at institutions with fewer than 3.5% of students identifying as Muslim. Muslim students are also significantly more likely to not complete their studies, with a sector average drop-out rate of 8.8% compared to 6.8% when looking at all students.

LMU launched the Centre for Equity and Inclusion last year as part of its anti-racism strategy and will publish a Race Equity Strategic Plan in February 2021 that establishes a wholesale institutional change programme. The university said it created a group to support staff to decolonise the curriculum, and a counselling group for “black and minoritised students”.

The report was launched at an online panel event. Panellists include Izram Chaudry (University of Leeds), Dr Zain Sardar (Aziz Foundation) and Dr Fatima Rajina (Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, De Montfort University).

Said Prof Dobbs: “Words alone will not address Islamophobia which is why this important study has been conducted in order to understand the issues and challenges present at London Met.

“As an institution committed to supporting diversity, equality and social justice, this report represents a valuable opportunity for us to listen and learn from our Muslim students and colleagues.

“These findings will inform the direction of our own efforts to make London Met a more welcoming place for members of the Muslim community, and we are looking forward to leading this important work within our sector.

“Every institution has its own unique culture, and I hope the institutionalised report can be used as a springboard by institutions to begin their own internal discussions and work on Islamophobia, supporting positive change across the sector.”

In his foreword for the report, LMU academic Prof Jason Arday said: This welcome and much-needed report reflects the university’s commitment to dismantling Islamophobia and comes at a seminal moment in our race relations history. It synthesises the sector’s need to continuously develop anti-racist endeavour, and represents another significant step towards achieving racial equality in Britain.”

In November 2020, Universities UK published a report that called for urgent action on racial harassment in higher education, saying that UK universities “perpetuate institutional racism“. The report came a year after the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said racial harassment in higher education was occurring“at an alarmingly high rate” and that universities were “unaware of the scale of the issue”.

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Nottingham Trent University has published a Race Equality Action Plan and vowed to “become an anti-racist institution“.

Read more: Race equality programme now formally part of UAL

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