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Levelling up opportunities for LGBT+ people in education and training

  • 24 September 2021
  • By John Cope

This blog was kindly contributed by John Cope, Director of Strategy, Policy & Public Affairs at UCAS. John is on Twitter @john_cope.

Starting an apprenticeship, or going to college and university is for many, including adult learners, a moment of liberation. It’s the point where financial independence begins, where many move away from home and start to take decisions for themselves. That sense of freedom can also be incredibly overwhelming for many. Especially those who may not have had the easiest or smoothest start on their journey – care leavers, low-income families, veterans, and the focus of UCAS’s report out today: LGBT+ students.

LGBT+ students have a personal decision to make – do I come out straight away? wait a little while? or hide it entirely? I have huge admiration for which ever decision is taken – each is hard in its own way. I know my decision to take the third choice was right for me at the time, but in hindsight a wretched one. Around 40,000 LGBT+ students applying to higher education every year face the same scenario.

This decision was layered on top of all the normal stresses and strains that going to university can involve. Leaving a village of a few hundred people to the sprawl of Nottingham; the first in my family to go to university; and suddenly surrounded by people from all over the country and world, all from different backgrounds. The reassuring calm and homogeneity of Lincolnshire quickly became apparent.

That’s why I was pleased when UCAS made the decision to also look at how LGBT+ students feel and what can be done to address the additional stresses they may face when starting at university or college. Based on a survey of almost 3,000 LGBT+ students, UCAS has today published ‘Next Steps – What is the experience of LGBT+ students in education?”.

The findings are generally very positive – 47% said that their experience being LGBT+ at school or college was good, and 41% said their experience was neutral. Of those that had a good experience, over three-quarters said this was due to being accepted by their friends. While this is positive, 12% have not had a good experience, with bullying cited as a common reason.

Encouragingly, there is a large well of optimism about the next step. Approximately half (53%) expect the student experience to be good and a further 24% expect it to be very good. Equally, LGBT+ students intend to be more open about their identity, with only 1-in-10 still unsure of how open they will be. This group tend to hold that view due to an unpleasant experience and have taken a ‘wait and see’ approach.

An area where improvement could take place is mental health support – as reported in the previous UCAS report Starting the conversation, there has been a 450% increase in the number of applicants feeling able to declare a mental health condition in their UCAS application over the last decade, now accounting for nearly 4% of total applicants. This is a positive sign of receding stigma that has too long surrounded mental health. Nevertheless poor mental health stands well above the average amongst LGBT+ people: 13% of LGBT+ students and 22% of trans students state in their application they have poor mental health. It is critical that those working in student support services recognise this and tailor support to meet their specific needs. The recent HEPI work on students’ experiences of sex and relationships in higher education also highlight the lack of appropriate education that LGBT+ students receive at school.

Our report also tells us that that being LGBT+ shapes what people looks for when making their choice in education and training. For example, nearly 1/3 of LGBT+ students, and over half of trans students, look for information regarding specific LGBT+ support services at a university or college. How LGBT+ friendly a location the university or college is in is also a key driver of interest from LGBT+ students, with urban centres proving the most popular.

As well as understanding students, it was critical our research pinned down ways UCAS can improve. One tangible way we can improve is making sure the UCAS application includes the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations to reflect modern Britain. Not only does this ensure students can apply using the identity of their choosing, rather than lie, but it also ensures that universities and colleges will be better placed to provide their student population with the tailored assistance they need to be supported more effectively. Alongside these changes, we need to make sure that personalised LGBT+ advice, information and guidance is available to students throughout the decision-making process and in their interactions with UCAS.

On pretty much every measure, trans individuals report having a less positive experience. This jumped out of the pages for me. Becoming an adult and setting off to begin your degree or apprenticeship should be a unique and definitive time in life and every student has the right to go into it feeling positive and excited about their future and which opportunities may come next. Today’s report shows that the vast majority do have that experience and that progress has been made, but there is still some way to go to level up the playing field of opportunity for us to be able to say education is as welcoming to LGBT+ people as it could and should be.

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