Thought for the Day - Professor Mona Siddiqui - 04/01/2013

When I was applying for university I was well aware of a strange distinction. While my school friends, mainly white and British had a choice in what they wanted to do with their lives, my family friends, mainly Asian, Muslim and largely middle–class faced limited choices – the top tier was becoming a doctor or possibly a dentist; the second was law and at a squeeze, accountancy; other choices were unfortunately often dismissed. Failure for many of my parents friends was not not getting into university, it was not getting into medicine.

A generation later, I wonder how much has changed and whether access to higher education has remained a class issue far more than it has an ethnicity or gender issue. The comment made by Universities Minister David Willets that universities in England should be doing more to encourage applications from white working class boys comes within the wider discussion of boys underperforming in higher education.

Recently, university education in terms of courses, access and cost has become bit of a minefield and it seems to me that irrespective of whether government targets and quotas really change attitudes, we may be missing a more basic point which is how do we get families of all backgrounds to value education and foster the culture of learning? University education provides different things for different people, but the desire for knowledge and the respect for learning of all kind go well beyond a degree and must come at a much earlier stage in our lives. Only then does its presence continue to enrich our mind and soul throughout our whole life.

Maybe this is why when I look at some Muslim families today I see a different kind of tension – the clash between religious knowledge and secular professions, the idea that spiritual growth comes from living apart from this world or that it is only religious knowledge which can strengthen your faith in God. I believe this has produced a cultural malaise in which basic books of theology suffice as learning and the dissemination of empirical and scientific knowledge, of literature, music and the arts is seen by some as weakening the faith. I personally can’t see this when I look at the rich history of Islamic civilisation or even the way the Qur’an commands us all to reflect upon the world encouraging bold and free inquiry not a closed and trapped piety. For me the simplest and most potent Qur’anic prayer is `O Lord increase me in knowledge.’ Seeking knowledge in all its diversity with all its risks is central to seeking God and understanding ourselves.

Maybe this is what we need to encourage in young people, as much as reinforcing the utilitarian aspect of higher education. A good education may lead to a good profession but if we can foster a desire for knowledge alongside it, this can transform your very person.

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