Money

How student loans are excluding Muslims from university


We need alternative student finance now (Picture: Getty Images)

Universities are champions of social mobility in the UK. 

Unlike in many countries, even Brits from poorer backgrounds have an opportunity to attend university if they have the academic talent, with the Government providing student loans to those who need them. 

But these loans exclude the UK’s poorest faith community, Muslims, because they charge interest, which goes against the teachings of Islam. Interest is seen as unethical and often exploitative because, typically, it means a net transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

That’s why we need alternative student finance now.

This isn’t a small problem: According to the consultancy firm EY, approximately 15% of the Muslim population will only use Sharia compliant financial products, while 75% would prefer to use a Sharia compliant product if they had the option. It’s also estimated that there are more than 42,000 Muslim students studying at UK universities. 

No young Brit should be forced to choose between their faith and their future. But that is exactly the impossible decision facing many Muslims as they work out if they can afford to attend university without the support of a student loan.

This has a long-term cost for British society: if fewer Muslims go to university, fewer Muslims get the best jobs, leading to more marginalisation – which will always be preyed upon by those on the fringes who want to further divide society and convince Muslims that they don’t belong.

It also affects the types of degrees Muslims can afford: one of my friends, for example, wanted to be a teacher but she couldn’t take out a student loan, so she ended up studying for nursing instead because the course offered a bursary. Another friend got accepted for medicine but, again, didn’t want to take out a loan so trained for a vocational qualification instead.

Those who do swallow the bitter pill of taking out a student loan can be left with a sense of guilt and shame that shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone. A friend of mine cries every time she receives a payment, telling me ‘It’s haram money, but what choice do I have?’

This issue was important when tuition fees were one or two thousand pounds. But now they are over £9,000, it is urgent

I’ve heard of many Muslim students who work extra jobs to try to reduce their dependence on loans. This inevitably has an impact on both their academic performance and the time they are able to spend socialising and networking, which is very much a part of student life. This could affect them their entire lives if they graduate with poorer degree results and less of a social and professional network, which is helpful for career progress. 

We would never tolerate universities exclusively serving pork pies and pints in canteens, and neither should we let the Government continue to exclude young Muslims from the financial lifeline of student loans – especially when a prime minister promised this would end, eight years ago.

In 2013, David Cameron declared at a World Economic Forum conference ‘Never again should a Muslim in Britain feel unable to go to university because they cannot get a student loan – simply because of their religion.’ That year, he also committed to the creation of an alternative student loan scheme. Not only would it be compliant with the principles of Islamic finance, but it would be available to anyone – not just Muslims – who held similar beliefs about interest and would equal the amount paid by borrowers using the current scheme. 

After a consultation, the Government settled upon a Sharia-compliant cooperative-insurance based model to be developed where, after an initial amount of money is put into the fund, students take out interest-free loans and pay them back when they are earning a certain amount.

The underlying principle would be mutual financial assistance and charitable contributions, with the repayments of those participating in the fund used to provide finance to future students. But although successive universities ministers have said they would implement it, their political will has been lacking.

This issue was important when tuition fees were one or two thousand pounds. But now they are over £9,000, it is urgent. And many young Muslims, as they plan their futures, are asking why nothing is being done. 

Under the Equality Act of 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against an individual based on their religion. Being prevented from going to university or being forced to compromise your religious beliefs while doing so, to me, seem like very good grounds to claim unlawful discrimination. 

It is no use having enlightened laws if they are not applied to real-life policy. Our finances affect our lives and our societies more than almost anything else. There is some truth to the criticism of elites’ social justice as just being ‘virtue signalling’ when what we really need are ‘virtue policies’ – policies that we were promised eight years ago.

It’s high time for an alternative student loan scheme. It’s hard enough being a Muslim student without having to suffer financial exclusion too.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk 

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