Magazine article Times Higher Education

A Place Unbefitting?

Magazine article Times Higher Education

A Place Unbefitting?

Article excerpt

We must do more to ensure British-Bangladeshi girls don't fear they'll be isolated at university, says Sally Brian

Last week's State of the Nation 2016 report by the UK's Social Mobility Commission once again highlighted how much work there still is to do in getting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university.

Part of the reason that progress is slow is that, in some communities, there are cultural as well as economic factors at play. A case in point is British-Bangladeshi girls. "Maria" is the first in her family to take the step. She has passion for her subjects, is on course for top A-level grades and hopes to become a lawyer. She has a family background of high aspiration, and yet my research into the attitudes towards higher education among second-generation British-Bangladeshi girls in their final school year highlights that students such as Maria fear not fitting in: "We get a bit frightened when we go to a university and we don't see many Asians," she explains.

There has undoubtedly been a rise in the number of working-class, ethnic minority students attending universities in the UK, but certain communities remain very under-represented at elite Russell Group universities, which often provide the key to social mobility.

For the students I interviewed, fear of not fitting in is compounded by worries that their religious identity and beliefs will be challenged. As Nilima puts it: "We're used to everyone respecting our views...We're not used to our beliefs being challenged, in the sense that someone opposes [them]."

The increasing scrutiny suffered by British Muslims can understandably heighten parental concerns. Noorjahan relays her parents' worries about her applying for universities outside London as revolving around her safety.

Maria is the youngest of seven siblings, none of whom attended university. Her parents speak little English. Unusually for someone from her social and ethnic background, she secured conditional offers from five Russell Group universities, yet she speaks about feeling dislocated when she visited her first-choice institution with a teacher while other applicants attended with all their family. "It was all so daunting," she says. "[The other students have] got that support, and you just feel like: 'Wow, I'm so out of place here! …

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