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A Big Sister’s Guide to Higher Education in the UK

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 25th January, 2024

Choosing an undergraduate university degree can be overwhelming, especially when faced with countless options. It also requires a level of accountability that many of us have yet to experience up to that point. While there is a plethora of information and resources available on the process, it can be overwhelming and off-putting. I remember feeling unsure about how to narrow down my choices while being reminded of the approaching application deadline. To make matters worse, my list of questions grew longer with each passing day.

When my younger sister asked me the same questions I had five years ago, I decided to put together a resource for others like her who’ll also be going through the application process. Studying at university is one of the biggest challenges I have faced so far, but through this, I learned so much about myself, forged new connections, experienced new cultures and strengthened my skills. What helped me throughout the process was trusting in Allah’s plan and direction for me. While we may set our sights on the ‘perfect’ course or the ‘right’ university, Allah may have much better in store for us. 

So, draw strength and confidence from your trust in Allah, and with this guide, I hope you find the process a little easier to navigate. 

Choosing A Career

If you already have a specific career in mind, it can be beneficial to explore various routes to attain it, as well as the possible trajectories. Does the career allow you to progress within a company/field through various roles? This will help you make an informed decision. 

If you’re uncertain about your career choice but want to pursue higher education, then consider your areas of interest. Here are some things to consider:

1. Do your current A-level subjects interest you enough to want to delve into them deeper? e.g. You may enjoy Chemistry so much, you wouldn’t mind studying it at a degree level.

2. Make a list of your hobbies and interests. Is there a common thread? Are there degree paths that allow you to develop your knowledge and grow in skills? For example, some of the Muslim women I spoke to had a range of interests from a love for international films to robotics advancements to running a small bakery. All of these interests can be translated into degrees:

  • If you’re an avid watcher of international films, you may find that you pick up on phrases and nuances of various cultures, or you develop an interest in various languages. Courses relating to history, culture, or international relations may be fitting for you
  • If you’re intrigued by robotic advancements, you may want to explore the range of Maths and Engineering degrees for the best fit.
  • If you’re already baking for yourself and others, the business aspect of running a bakery could be one to explore for a degree, and this can mean considering marketing or business courses. 
  • If you’re passionate about activism, particularly due to the events transpiring across the world, then you may want to explore degrees such as global policy, journalism, law, politics and human rights, that lead to careers where you can be a part of crucial discussions and action.

These examples are a starting point for exploring various fields. Approach this with an open mind, as you may stumble upon a degree you never even knew existed like Costume Technology or Floral Design! 

Types of Higher Education

While university is the most common route to pursue higher education, there are several other opportunities available. For example, you can consider a degree apprenticeship if you prefer earning and learning while studying. 

Here are other course types you can consider: 

1. Bachelor’s Degree (BA/BEng/BSc/MB): This is the most common undergraduate qualification, attained after studying a specific course for three to four years.

2. Foundation degrees: These courses last 1-2 years and are designed to equip students who do not meet the entry requirements for Bachelor’s courses with the required knowledge and background.

3. Degree apprenticeships: As mentioned, this allows you to earn work experience while undertaking academic study within the university. With this degree, you’re likely to have a job upon graduation.

4. Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs): These are vocational qualifications that provide an alternative route towards studying for a degree. HNCs are the equivalent of the first year of university and HNDs are equivalent to 2 years. Examples include accounting, mechanical engineering and social sciences.

5. Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs): These are vocational qualifications that prioritise technical skills for specific industries. This qualification is in between A/T – Levels and a degree. There are a variety of options for this type of qualification.

You can explore the following resources for more information:

The Application Process

Once you have decided what career and pathway you want to pursue, the final and most important step is to apply!

In the UK, most undergraduate degrees require you to apply through the UCAS website. The application process typically includes filling out an application form,  completing a personal statement, and including a reference provided by your school (usually your tutor). Some courses and universities may also include a virtual or in-person interview. 

After this, your application is either accepted or rejected. Where you have more than one acceptance, you will be required to confirm your firm and insurance acceptance – your first and second choice. 

In the case of degree apprenticeships, applications can pop up throughout the year so keep an eye on the website. They regularly list available apprenticeships in the UK and provide a filtering system to narrow down your search.

If you are not ready to apply, you can consider taking a gap year.  A break from formal education allows you to explore your interests and options further. During this time, you can take on internships or part-time jobs in a range of roles. A gap year also provides a great opportunity to improve your relationship with Allah, this can be through taking courses, attending Qur’an classes or memorising the Qur’an.

Financing your education

The rising costs of tuition fees, living expenses, and other educational necessities, can be daunting for many students. While taking a student loan is encouraged, this can pose a significant barrier for Muslim students.

While some Muslim students can self-fund their education, pursuing further education would not have been possible for others, like myself and my siblings, without the assistance of a student loan. As we await the introduction of Muslim-friendly tuition fees, there are alternative avenues to consider to finance your studies without relying solely on student loans.

Sister Barakah financed five years of medical school without taking out a student loan. Here is how she and her family were able to achieve this:

I come from quite a conservative Muslim household; my parents are both scholars and my father is a local and respected imam. My dad has advised people that if they have no other means of going to university then a student loan would be disliked but permissible. However, as a family, we were able to pool our resources together and, with the blessing of Allah, my three siblings and I managed to go to university without taking student finance. My older sister was my largest benefactor because she was working full-time. A big part of how she was able to save up was because she got her degree in the good old days when there were no tuition fees!”

“The only way this was possible at all was through my parents and older sister who saved constantly to ensure that we could pay that semester’s fees. My entire financial journey throughout university would have been impossible were it not for this major factor. Once my older brother started working, he contributed to the ‘pool’. Now that I am working, I can contribute to the benefit of my younger brother. In a sense, it’s the same as “committee” but rather than a whole group of families, it’s just one family.

Other ways people financed their education without a loan include part-time jobs, community funding and crowdfunding 

It could also be worth checking if your course is offered on a part-time basis. Opting for part-time study often means paying half the tuition fee, but it extends the duration of studies. For example, a three-year course would take five to six years.

Alternatively, you can consider courses from The Open University that are primarily delivered online, helping reduce costs.

Pursuing Part-time Work for Support

While family support can be beneficial, this may not be an option for everyone. Part-time jobs can serve as an additional income stream to help with your expenses. Consider jobs such as online tutoring, working at your university shops/cafes or retail assistant roles. These provide flexibility, allowing you to prioritise your studies. Sister Barakah goes on to say:

“The focus was always just on tuition fees. Living at home meant there was no need for maintenance loans, and any other expense was usually through part-time work. I did some private A-level and GCSE tuition, as well as working as a vaccinator. My brothers worked several jobs. This was usually enough to cover all other expenses, especially if I spent my summer working.  Anyone who has worked whilst getting a degree can tell you that there is always a struggle between balancing study, work and rest but alhamdulillah I had a lot of support from my family!”

It’s essential to weigh the pros and cons and carefully consider the impact of this decision on your academic journey. 


Another important factor to consider is whether you want to stay on campus or commute. University accommodation allowed me to experience independence and save travel time while giving me the chance to live with sisters from diverse cultures and backgrounds. 

Opting for an all-inclusive room provided me with a clear accommodation budget.  

Additionally, through meal planning, choosing cheaper travel options, and being money-conscious, I could allocate the remaining sum towards other expenses, even enjoying occasional dining out with friends.

However, with the rising cost of student accommodation, commuting can be a great option to save and avoid taking out a maintenance loan. Barakah shared her insights on the pros and cons of commuting.

“You can feel like you’re missing out on a key university experience. What it boils down to is if you can tolerate it enough. For me, despite all the challenges of living at home, it was much more tolerable than taking a sizable student loan with a ridiculous rate of interest.”

“There were a lot of sacrifices made by everyone in the family. I would say on the outside, my university experience was probably not as fun – I rarely went out to events/dinners which kept my expenses to a bare minimum. I suppose this was acceptable to me personally as I’m not very outgoing! I felt like I still enjoyed my university experience, made a lot of friends, found ways to have fun that were inexpensive and meaningful to me as an introverted person.”

University cities also provide a plethora of events and opportunities. Joining your university’s Islamic Society is another excellent way to engage in various activities like charity week, dhikr circles, and much more! Weighing the pros and cons and considering your preferences will help guide you in making the best decisions for your overall university experience. 

Bursaries and Scholarships

“I was able to get a student bursary of £3000 a year due to my household income. This meant that I had two payments in a year, each amounting to £3,125, which was manageable.”

University scholarships and bursaries provide valuable financial support. Many universities offer scholarships to cover tuition fees, so check their web pages for early deadlines. Some bursaries are means-tested and awarded based on specific criteria. You may choose to receive cash directly or have it deducted from your tuition fees.

Some scholarships require you to write essays, and there are many online resources for writing winning essays. While at university, I came across a Muslim sister who applied annually for our university tuition scholarship by writing an essay, and she was granted a full tuition scholarship.

For post-graduate students, applying for the Aziz Foundations scholarships specifically designed for Muslim students is a great idea!

Community and Mentorship

All the Muslim women I spoke to greatly relied on the support and kindness of those around them. Talking to and discussing educational funding with other Muslim women is a great way to gather insights on their journeys.

Whatever you choose, it is important to reflect on the significance of this step. Attend open days, consult career advisors and talk to current university students to gain a better understanding of the process and available options. 

While it may seem overwhelming, especially if you are studying during the application period,  remember to take time to rest and relax. Although you need to get your applications in on time, especially if you are applying for student finance, you have the option to change your career even after deciding.

Take advice from those around you and pray to Allah SWT for guidance in your decision. We were all moulded with different skills and talents so don’t be disheartened if your route looks a little different from those around you. I always remind myself of the strong Muslim women of Islam, each contributing to the world with their own unique qualities.

I wish you all the best and pray Allah SWT guides you in the best way possible on the next stage of your journey.


  1. Advance HE Governance Team. “Data published for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) End of Cycle 2021 and Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA): Higher Education Student Statistics 2020/21.”, AdvanceHE
  2. Mantle, Rebecca. “Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2021/22 – Student numbers and characteristics.”, HESA
  3. Study UK. “Choosing a university or college.” British Council 
  4. Moore, Henry. “Job changers and stayers, understanding earnings, UK: April 2012 to April 2021.” ONS
  5. UCAS Staff. “Undergraduate.” UCAS
  6. Dobbs, Jamie. “What’s an HNC and HND?.” WhatUni
  7. “Higher and degree apprenticeships.” Gov.Uk
  8. “The future is open with the open university.” The Open University
  9. “About our Scholarships.” Aziz Foundation
Samra Abbass

Samra Abbass

Samra is based in the UK and has key interests in Inclusivity, Muslim and South Asian history in Britain which she has demonstrated through paid and voluntary work.