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A new educational outreach project needed for underprivileged Muslim students

HOPEFUL: Tom Illube CBE

HAVING FOUNDED the African Gifted Foundation, which works across the continent with exceptionally bright young women, I know just how education can bring enormous transformational changes to lives that were destined to be denied opportunity. I passionately believe that everyone must have access to it - up to and including higher levels – regardless of background and financial means.

Sadly, this still applies in rich Western countries, too, where many financially and socially deprived youngsters grow up with limited horizons. Again, my work as founding chair of Hammersmith Academy, a secondary school in a less privileged area of London, gave me first-hand experience of how uneven the playing field remains by dint of background, wealth, class, religion and/or ethnicity.

If support is cleverly targeted and conditional, it will not only boost personal outcomes but revive and advance entire neglected communities.

An exemplar of this approach that I am thrilled to be involved in as an Advisory Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford – one of the prestigious educational institutions where it will be rolled out – is the Sheikh Family Scholarship.

This major higher education support programme from the COSARAF Charitable Foundation, is open to UK muslim students who face financial hardship and, ideally, are the first in their family to attend university.

Providing up to 24 graduate and undergraduate scholarships at four major UK universities, the programme will provide long-term support to develop leadership within UK Muslim communities, fostering sustained integration and cohesion.

The Sheikh Family Scholarship will also create a culture of aspiration and success in the UK’s most disadvantaged areas, where youngsters typically must contend with a host of barriers to higher education apart from the stiff competition faced by all applicants.

Seeing older siblings being told that they can go as far and fast as their abilities allow, will empower them to reach for the stars too - making degree-level learning commonplace where it isn’t currently.

I strongly believe that this template can be replicated and applied across BAME neighbourhoods nationwide to kickstart meaningful and long-lasting social change.
And there is much work to do.

While the introduction and subsequent increases in university tuition fees have not yet had any significant impact on higher education participation rates on the whole, there remains a great disparity between participation rates of those from affluent, stable homes and the most disadvantaged young people.

UCAS’s end-of-cycle report, in December 2018, showed that entry to higher education for 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged group (on UCAS’s multiple equality measure), was 12.3%, compared to 56.3% for the most advantaged.
Black communities are still significantly over-represented in the UK’s most disadvantaged communities.

Nevertheless, the sort of far-reaching changes that could see black and other ethnic minorities figure more prominently in higher education is not impossible, when you consider that one of the Scholarship partners, St Anne’s College, Oxford, pioneered university admission for women.

It is somewhat surreal to remember that, not long ago, an entire sex was denied the opportunity to advance as far as its energies and abilities would take it.

As such, when the College was founded as Oxford University’s Society of Home-Students, in 1879, women didn’t really figure highly in higher education or public life. St Anne’s was determined to change things – by inventing a whole new model to open the door to an Oxford degree and widening access.

It sparked a fire and blazed a trail, helping women of all colours and creeds from around the world to attend lectures and tutorials, which meant addressing crucial practical issues, such as providing affordable lodgings and halls.

And now, in England, young women are 36 per cent more likely to apply to degree courses than young men, official UCAS data revealed recently. There were 29,100 more undergraduate applications from 18-year-old English women compared to their male peers, figures for 2018 show.

This shows that whatever the starting point, any more equitable position for marginalised groups is achievable.

St Anne’s College’s impressive heritage became enshrined in its firm ongoing mission to create an entirely diverse and inclusive community. It sets out its stall to be the destination of choice for the brightest and best students, including those from all under-represented groups, whatever their backgrounds or visible or assumed characteristics.

The Sheikh Family Scholarship is a wonderful addition to excellent programmes that St Anne’s is engaged with, such as Target Oxbridge and Generating Genius.

While the onus can be religious and/or ethnic, it need not be; the model can be tweaked to ensure potency anywhere – in any and all deprived communities, whether urban, suburban or rural. It means that no deserving talent need be left behind and that traditionally overlooked communities and locations the length and breadth of the country can keep pace with more affluent ones.

Tom Ilube is a tech entrepreneur and educational philanthropist. The founder of the trailblazing African Gifted Foundation and African Science Academy, he was Powerlist 2017’s most influential black person in the UK.

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