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'We need to go beyond the course because for us it's a way of life': Findings from a national study of Muslim students

Christine Asmar
Institute for Teaching and Learning
The University of Sydney
In the Western university system we have become used to certain changes confronting us, but less used to other changes, such as an apparent increase in the numbers of our students who strongly identify with a religious commitment. The centrality of religion to the identity and life choices of our many Muslim students, for example, is only now beginning to be recognised. Herein lies a challenge to some of our habitual ways of thinking, since the Western university system is traditionally associated with secularism. Moreover, Muslim students do not always find the campus environment sympathetic to their values: 'To be religious and a Christian is already nerdy, but to be a Muslim is even more'. We know from the literature that a student's overall course experience is affected by that student's interactions with peers and staff; and that a student's intellectual development is also affected by inter-personal factors. To find out the implications of all this for Muslim students we asked the students themselves. This paper reports findings from a national study of the course experience of Muslim students attending Australian universities. The students, while generally positive, reported a range of concerns, ranging from subtle discrimination to clashes between their religious and academic obligations. Overall, the findings strongly suggest the need for greater flexibility towards, and a genuine valuing of difference, on the part of institutions, students and staff.


In the Western university system we have become used to certain changes confronting us, but less used to others. The composition of the student body seems to be evolving into a shifting, multicoloured kaleidoscope far removed from what many fondly (if perhaps inaccurately) recall as the homogeneous monoculturalism of campuses in the past. Some university staff find this evolution an exciting one, and a source of renewal. For others it is more confronting, and is experienced as more of a challenge. This paper examines how a new and growing group of students, whose religious identification as Muslims is relatively unfamiliar on Western campuses, interacts with staff and students in our universities, together with the implications of those interactions for all of us in higher education.

Dealing with difference in universities

Much has now been written on issues relating to the learning of international students, particularly those from the Asia-Pacific region Cherished beliefs regarding the characteristics of certain groups are being whittled away in the light of what the research in our region reveals (Biggs, 1997; Chalmers and Volet, 1997). Overseas, too, the bastions of stereotyping are beginning to crumble, for preconceptions regarding certain sub-groups in the student population are increasingly shown to be empirically unjustified. In the United States, for example, the damaging effects of stereotyping upon students' capacity to learn has now been convincingly demonstrated. Steele (1997) examined the phenomenon of 'stereotype threat', whereby minorities feel a sense of threat when in a situation where a negative stereotype of one's group applies. The sense of threat in turn leads them to under-achieve. In one program, Black students told they were in a 'challenge' program did far better than those in remediation programs which, as Steele astutely notes, merely 'institutionalise the racial stereotype by which they are already threatened'.

It seems reasonable to hope, then, that negative stereotyping on campuses, and especially in classrooms, is on the decrease, although the persistence of a remediation mindset appears to persist in some quarters (Robertson et al, 2000). There is certainly a growing awareness that, as John Biggs has succinctly phrased it, good teaching is simply good teaching, and should be able to transcend inter-student differences. We can notice, if only at anecdotal level, that teaching staff who win university awards for their excellence in teaching are rarely the same ones who are heard complaining about the difficulties of coping with students whose cultural or other characteristics, identities and backgrounds differ from some kind of imagined norm. Indeed, such teachers are adept at utilising the rich variety of their newly diverse student body to enhance and expand the learning experience of all their students. As one Muslim student in Melbourne reported about a Management course in which her lecturers had been encouraging discussion of topics such as Islamic law: 'Actually with a lot of my non-Muslim friends, many have said to me, "We've learned so much more about Islam than anything else in this course".' Outside the classroom, institutions are also making increasing efforts to cater for the needs of students from overseas, so in one sense there is undoubtedly an increasing readiness to accommodate difference.

Yet despite such adaptations there are certain areas of change which we sometimes seem less prepared to deal with. Such changes can include an apparent increase in the numbers of our students who strongly identify with a religious commitment. The centrality of religion to the identity and life choices - including educational choices - of our many Muslim students, for example, is only just beginning to be spasmodically recognised and partly accommodated. This paper seeks to explore the educational implications of how students and staff perceive and interact with a group of students identified with this particular non-Christian religious affiliation, and with the often negative characteristics popularly associated with its adherents.

Religion and difference

It has long been assumed that secularisation is an inevitable by-product of university education; in other words, that students are likely to become less, not more religious, as a result of going to university. Pascarella and Terenzini's (1991) monumental study of the effect of college on students is unambiguous on this point:
The literature published since 1967 fairly consistently reports statistically significant declines in religious attitudes, values and behaviours during the college years.
The very opposite now appears to be true of the many students who find social and spiritual (as well as academic) support from like-minded peers and very often have their faith reinvigorated. Thus, it is not unusual for a Muslim woman brought up in a family where women have not habitually covered themselves, to adopt the hijab (headscarf) only after her arrival at university. On one level, of course, this fits quite neatly into what we already know of the importance to students learning and personal growth of interactions with their peers (Hurtado et al, 1996), since the Muslim Students Associations play an important role in supporting and encouraging religious, academic and social connections between their members. On another level it challenges certain assumptions, one of which concerns whether Muslim women's personal choices - so often thought to be imposed on them by men - are determining such decisions. One Muslim female student in our study said: 'It really hurts when [they say] "Are you wearing this because you're married and your husband forces this on to you?"'

Another challenge involves some of our habitual ways of thinking regarding the association in people's minds between higher education in the Western system, and secular ideals. In the context of a secular liberal tradition, the sudden presence in Australian classrooms of women wearing the hijab can be not only unprecedented but even disturbing. Nor do the Muslim students themselves always find the campus environment sympathetic to their values, as our findings below will demonstrate: 'To be religious and a Christian is already nerdy, but to be a Muslim is even more'. Why is this so? Could it be because some people associate Islam with an exotic kind of difference, others with oppression and victimisation, and others with an implicit challenge to their own values? Is there any question of racism or discrimination playing a role on our generally liberal campuses? And, since Muslim females who 'cover' are immediately identifiable, while their male peers are much less so, do the issues end up being gendered? Finally, what does all this mean for our role as educators of all our students for life as global citizens?

Sources of data

This paper reports selected findings from a national study of the course experience of Muslim students, funded by a research grant from the University of Sydney. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was the source of some initial data on Muslim levels of attendance at universities in Australia, derived from the 1996 Census. The ABS data are interesting in that they contradict some popular preconceptions regarding whether or not Muslims (especially women) are more or less likely to enter the higher education system at the same rate as the population at large.

The major source of data for the study was a series of structured interviews conducted by myself (assisted by Lici Inge) with 28 female and male Muslims (all students except for four Muslim student counsellors) at the following 12 universities across Australia:

Australian National University
Curtin University
Monash University
Murdoch University
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
University of Canberra
University of Melbourne
University of NSW
University of Sydney
University of Technology Sydney
University of Western Australia
University of Wollongong
The states from which our sample was derived contain 92% of all the Muslims in Australia. We worked through Muslim Students Associations, who readily cooperated with us on each campus to arrange access to their members. Twelve women and sixteen men were interviewed, reflecting the slightly larger proportion of male Muslim students than females in Australian universities, as well as the larger proportion of males in the Muslim community as a whole. A copy of the interview schedule is attached as an Appendix. A selection of the major findings will be summarised below. Although the issue of services and facilities was a vital one for the students, particularly in terms of access to a prayer space, for the purposes of this paper the main emphasis will be on issues more directly related to their course experience.

What the Census data tell us

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, 2000), Australia's 10,498 Muslim university students represent 5.23% of all Australian Muslims, compared to only 3.53% of the population as a whole who currently study in universities. The figures for Australia as a whole also have Muslim female students showing up well; for, whilst 3.78% of all Australian women attend university, 4.41% of Muslim women do. So a higher proportion of Muslims are attending university than the proportion of Australian people as a whole. Expressed in a slightly different way, Muslims attend university in greater proportions than their numbers in the population would suggest. This is an oft-used measure of whether minority access to higher education is being equitably achieved. For example, since Muslims form 1.12% of the Australian population, then we would expect that their presence in the tertiary system would also be around one per cent. Instead, we find that well over five per cent of them are studying at university.

Issues in the interviews

In response to questions about major issues of concern to Muslim students on campus; issues which concern Muslim female students in particular; and issues affecting Muslim students in their interactions with staff and students, the students spoke of a range of issues. Many were quite happy with the situation on their own campuses, although many also said that they faced more discriminatory treatment off campus, in the wider community. In selecting the quotes below, we do not wish to give the impression that the students are uniformly dissatisfied. On campuses, for example, where the administration had made a special effort to provide them with services such as a prayer space for their obligatory daily prayer - a crucial issue - they were very appreciative. Expressions of this appreciation was sometimes accompanied, however, by somewhat cynical comments regarding the universities' motives in providing such facilities. It was assumed that such actions were largely driven by the fee-generating capacity of international students from Muslim countries, rather than by a sense of commitment to religious equity:
It's not because they want to help the Muslim students, it's because the proportion of overseas students is big - fee paying. (Male Muslim student, Perth)
The students' comments below have been grouped under their major concerns. As already indicated, it is not our wish to focus on the negatives, except as a means of perhaps heightening our awareness that stereotyping and even discrimination can manifest itself in very subtle ways - not so subtle, however, that intelligent students fail to recognise it!
  1. Being regarded as alien:
  2. Being excluded from class activities:
  3. Experiencing/perceiving/expecting discrimination:
  4. Being singled out
  5. Being marginalised
  6. Experiencing curriculum/teaching as inappropriate:
  7. Feeling uncomfortable in mixed sex interactions with staff and students:
  8. Feeling conflict between academic and religious obligations:

Implications of the students' concerns

The students' comments, we feel, speak for themselves. The effects of Steele's (1997) 'stereotyping threat' may or may not be a real possibility, but what is clear is that negative responses by their teachers and by their non-Muslim peers towards identifiable Muslims do appear to affect some of those students quite painfully. As one female student put it: 'I'm on guard all the time here'. 'Identifiable' in this instance often equates to 'female', so that there are issues of gender equity to consider as well. With this particular group, however, it would also appear that their strong religious faith seems to carry them through. Eimers and Pike (1997) found that minority students are not more likely to discontinue as a result of discrimination than non-minority students, but that discrimination had negative effects on both groups. It is salutary to consider that the effects of inequitable responses to some student groups are experienced beyond those groups, within the wider student community. Nora and Cabrera (1996) similarly found that the effects of perceptions of prejudice had a more significant effect on white students than on non-white students - who may simply accept it as their lot, and get on with the job of achieving anyway. As one Muslim in Sydney stoutly put it: ' I don't think we should get upset. It's part of our beliefs and we will do it whether people like it or not.'

Some of the Muslim students reported the opposite of discrimination - that their teachers 'exaggerate their kindliness' towards them - although it has been seen above that such spotlighting is not always entirely welcome, as it risks setting them apart from other students. The question of how best to facilitate interactions between all students is not only a way of supporting the full integration of all our students into academic life. It is also strongly indicated by the research into student learning as being of primary importance in contributing to the learning, and the enrichment, of all students.


There are clearly some student concerns which can easily be addressed by simple good teaching. For example, should a request for handouts be considered unreasonable? Isn't the 'spotlighting' of students from specific groups almost always unwelcome to such students? And shouldn't students feel entitled to having their full participation in collaborative learning activities facilitated? Other concerns, such as timetabling to avoid clashes with religious obligations, are more an issue for the institution. Focusing on one particular group of students (as we have done) always runs the risk of encouraging culture-, ethnic- or (in this case) religious-specific approaches. Such approaches fall into a category described by Biggs (1997) as 'apples versus oranges': the idea, in other words, that 'normal' students can be taught in a normal way, while others - seen as having some kind of deficit - have to be taught in a different way. This is not at all what we believe the findings from this study suggest. To us, the findings simply suggest the need for flexibility towards, and an acceptance, incorporation and genuine valuing of difference.


The research was carried out with funding supplied by a University Research Grant from the University of Sydney. Lici Inge's assistance throughout this study has been, and continues to be invaluable. I would also like to thank the Muslim students whose cooperation made the whole study possible.

Selected references

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996 Census of Population and Housing, unpublished data (June 2000).

Biggs, J. (1997). Teaching across and within cultures: the issue of international students. Proceedings of the Higher Education Research and Development Society Conference, Adelaide SA, 1-22.

Chalmers, D. and Volet, S. (1997). Common misconceptions about students from South-East Asia studying in Australia. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(1), 87-98.

Eimers, Mardy T. and Pike, Gary R. (1997). Minority and non-minority adjustment to college: Differences or similarities? Research in Higher Education, 38(1), 77-97.

Hurtado, S., Carter, D. and Spuler, A. (1996). Latino student transition to college: Assessing difficulties and factors in successful college adjustment. Research in Higher Education, 37(2), 135-157.

Nora, A. and Cabrera, A. F. (1996). The role of perceptions of prejudice and discrimination on the adjustment of minority students to college. Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 119-148.

Robertson, M., Line, M., Jones, S. and Thomas, S. (2000). International students, learning environments and perceptions: A case study using the Delphi technique. Higher Education Research and Development, 19(1), 89-102.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6), 613-629.


Research Study Into The Course Experience of Muslim Students in Australian Universities
(Investigator: Dr Christine Asmar)

Interview schedule

Questions for office-holders in Muslim student organisations at Australian universities. Subjects will be given the Subject Information sheet and a Consent Form to sign. The interviews will be audio taped if the subject agrees, and the subject will only be identified in subsequent published material if he or she agrees.
  1. Can you describe what your organisation does to support Muslim students at this university?

  2. What is the size of your membership at present?

  3. As far as you know, what proportion of all the Muslim students at this university are members of your organisation?

  4. To what extent do Muslim students utilise the university's Student Services? Why?

  5. How would you describe your interactions with the university administration in relation to the needs of Muslim students?

  6. What are the major issues which concern your members on campus? What about off-campus?

  7. Are there any issues, on- or off-campus, which concern women in particular?

  8. In the classroom environment, are you aware of any particular issues affecting Muslim students in their interactions with their fellow-students and staff?

  9. To what extent do you think Muslim students feel that their beliefs and practices are valued in the university?

  10. In your opinion, what can the university do to increase Muslim students' satisfaction with their courses?

Author: Dr Christine Asmar
Institute for Teaching and Learning (Bldg F07)
The University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
Tel: (02) 9351 5812 Fax: (02) 9351 4331 Email:

Please cite as: Asmar, C. (2000). 'We need to go beyond the course because for us it's a way of life': Findings from a national study of Muslim students. In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA.

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