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Wellbeing among LGBTQ+ students: successes and challenges 

  • 30 June 2022
  • By Omar Khan and Michael Sanders

On Thursday 7 July, HEPI is hosting a webinar to launch its new report on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education. Book your free place here.

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Omar Khan, Director of the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) and Michael Sanders, Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London.

Today, TASO has released a new report on the subjective wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students based on the analysis of data from the Student Academic Experiences Survey, a survey run by Advance HE and HEPI which is administered to more than 10,000 students each year.

Pride marches, whose anniversaries we celebrate this month, originate in the demand of LGBTQ+ people to freely and openly affirm and express themselves, in public as well as in private. Because of discrimination and intolerance, LGBTQ+ people have often been unable to affirm their identities, or to be safe physically – to be free from violence and abuse from members of the public as well as from the state.

That particular venues, neighbourhoods and cities became the site for Pride (originally ‘Liberation’) organising and marches indicates two important considerations: that geography and space matter for LGBTQ+ (and other forms of) equality; and that being part of a wider group or community provides for greater ability to freely learn, develop and explore who we are and who we want to be.

Increasingly, one such space appears to be higher education. In the UK, data from the HEPI / Advance HE 2022 Student Academic Experiences Survey (SAES) show that many LGBTQ+ students report rising levels of wellbeing over the three or four years of their undergraduate courses. While the data are complicated – with only relatively small numbers in each group per year, a lack of reliable information on people in the last year of four-year courses, and of course the disruptive effect of the Coronavirus pandemic – these findings seem consistent for bisexual, lesbian and trans students over the last eight years.  

For all young people, higher education is a place both where they learn about the world and about their course, as well as about others and themselves. In addition to being an important part of growing up, the process also seems to provide students an environment in which they become happier. 

We should keep in mind the important context that as with LGBTQ+ people generally, the students in this survey reported worse mental health than their straight peers. It will take 20 years for the gaps we’ve identified to close, indicating that higher education providers need to do more to address LGBTQ+ wellbeing specifically.

Keeping those caveats in mind, what else can we learn from these findings? How can we build on the relative success, and better address the areas where inequalities persist?

Firstly, higher education institutions should (cautiously) celebrate and welcome the fact that LGBTQ+ young people feel increased wellbeing relative to their heterosexual peers during their years at university or college. It is important not to overstate these findings, but in a context of low levels of wellbeing among LGBTQ+ children and young people, we need to learn from positive findings – and replicate these as far as possible.

Secondly, and relatedly, we need to better understand why some (but not all) LGBTQ+ students feel increased wellbeing. It is plausible that the social experiences and context of university and college life is less marked by homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, both due to the generational and attitudinal differences between students / young people and older cohorts and non-graduates. More LGBTQ+ than ever before are out at university, though we could do with more evidence on why and how this has been enabled, rather than assuming that this pattern will naturally persist without serious effort. It is also plausible that for some LGBTQ+ young people, simply living away from home gives them the opportunity to express who they are more freely.

Thirdly, whatever makes higher education a space where many LGBTQ+ people feel increased wellbeing should be extended to other institutions and experiences. Before higher education, schools and parents can do more to enable greater wellbeing among LGBTQ+ children, while employers and public institutions could similarly learn from higher education after people complete their degrees, especially given evidence that some people are more likely to be closeted in their first job, affecting their performance and wellbeing.

Fourthly, there may also be lessons here for other groups. To the extent that individual wellbeing is connected to free self-expression, and to finding others who we can connect with, that consideration applies to everyone. If such flourishing and self-development are constrained, those who are currently unequally able to freely explore their independence will be most adversely affected.

Fifthly, and lastly, the relative success in terms of improved wellbeing over their course cannot detract from higher levels of LGBTQ+ inequality overall. Notably, the average effect of the pandemic on student wellbeing were 50 per cent larger for LGBQA people than for their peers, and this gap has persisted. 

Asexual students, for example, consistently have the lowest levels of wellbeing of any sexual orientation group, while trans students on average experience lower wellbeing than their peers – with more than half of all trans students experiencing high levels of anxiety. 

These figures also indicate that there is significant variability within the LGBTQ+ population, variability that our study has only partly explored due to sample size. Higher education providers should consider how they will address these inequalities, and how they will monitor progress.

Historical inequities cast a long shadow. It is good to see signs that the extent and effects of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are reducing in some parts of higher education. We should celebrate and learn from this success, not least to ensure that we do better in tackling the significant gaps that remain. This is the wider message of Pride Month.

Book your place for the webinar on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education here.

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