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Trans and non-binary student experiences in higher education

  • 23 May 2024
  • By Josh Freeman and Rose Stephenson

New HEPI report explores the experiences of trans and non-binary students throughout higher education

The report by Josh Freeman, HEPI Policy Manager, and Rose Stephenson, HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy, is the first of its kind in the UK and draws together new data to understand how trans and non-binary students experience higher education. Based on recent survey data and interviews with students and academics, it tracks the trans and non-binary student experience from application, through study, to their life after graduation.

Read the full report here.

Key findings:

  • At the point of applying to higher education, trans and non-binary people may face additional challenges. Nearly a quarter (24%) of trans applicants have experience of care against just 4% of applicants who are not trans; on average, they also have lower A-level and BTEC grades. Trans and non-binary students are also more likely to have a disability than students who are not trans or non-binary.
  • Throughout their time in higher education, trans and non-binary students tend to have poorer wellbeing than students who are not trans or non-binary. More than half of trans applicants (56%) feel ‘rejected by others’ compared with a quarter (26%) of applicants who are not trans.
  • However, of the three stages we explored, trans and non-binary students are comparatively happier while at university. On some questions such as life satisfaction, the gap in wellbeing (between trans and non-binary students on one hand and students who are not trans or non-binary on the other) disappears or decreases while students are studying but reappears or increases once they leave higher education.
  • Half of trans students (50%) and almost half of non-binary students (49%) have considered withdrawing from university – most commonly because of mental health issues. This compares with 28% of the whole student population.
  • Trans and non-binary students are less likely to study subjects such as Business and Law, but are generally not less likely to be studying STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). In fact, nearly a fifth (18%) of non-binary students study Biological Sciences, compared with just 7% of men and 13% of women. However, trans students study Social Studies at a higher rate (20%, compared with 13% of students who are not trans).
  • In the 2020/21 academic year, more trans or non-binary students failed to progress to the next year of their degree (16%) compared to students who are not trans or non-binary (10%). Trans and non-binary students who did achieve their degree were awarded ‘good’ degrees (a first or upper second – 75% did so) at a somewhat lower rate than their classmates (of whom 80% did so).
  • We find there is a trans and non-binary penalty, with these students earning on average £2,000 less 15 months after graduation than their peers who are not trans or non-binary. They are also less likely to be employed in ‘managerial’ and ‘professional’ roles.
  • Despite all these challenges, many trans and non-binary students we spoke to were having a positive experience in their university setting.

The report reveals a broad spectrum of experiences, with many trans and non-binary students encountering barriers to financial support, academic success, and social isolation. For example, in relation to wellbeing, one student told us:

It is really tough living in a climate that is playing on our downfall. The Government, both historically and at the moment, are actively hostile towards trans people. It’s awful being scapegoated for just existing.

During interviews for the report, one student explained that pre-transition she had been very successful in recruitment rounds, securing four out of the five jobs she had applied for. However, following her transition, she applied for ten roles and was successful in none of these applications. She felt strongly that this was due to her presentation as a trans woman.

But other students interviewed struck a more positive note:

My experience has been mostly positive – although my passport had been changed before I arrived at uni, so I wasn’t ‘in the weeds’ with complicated admin around name changes. My supervisors are well-informed on trans stuff and the student counsellors here are really good.

HEPI encourages higher education providers to adopt an intersectional approach to support, considering the varied identities and needs of trans and non-binary students. We recommend that:

  • The data collected on trans and non-binary students should be complete and consistent, in line with recommended practice from Advance HE
  • Higher education institutions should pay particular concern to the career advice given to trans and non-binary students.
  • Institutions should have a named contact for issues related to gender identity, as a single place students can go to for support.
  • Hardship funds for students who are struggling financially should not exclude students saving money for expenses related to transitioning gender.
  • All staff, but particularly those who work directly with trans and non-binary people, should receive sufficient training to have a good understanding of the challenges faced by trans and non-binary students.
  • Students told us that university name change processes could be ‘laborious, taxing and humiliating’. The students recognised that institutions often have scores of complex and interacting record systems but recommended that the process of changing your name is mapped and simplified where possible.
  • Institutions should take steps to educate students and staff on engaging in informed debate, which is as much as possible respectful, to engage a wide variety of perspectives and to empower all groups of students to put forward their views.

The report also addresses the balance of protecting free speech while ensuring a tolerant and harassment-free environment for all students, including those with gender-critical beliefs.

Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI and an author of the report, said:

The discussion around the experiences of this group of students has not always been evidence-led, so by sharing this research, we hope to ground the debate in the best data available. Our findings show that it is difficult to be a trans and non-binary student today and these students may need more support with their wellbeing, finances and careers than other students.

But there are some positives too. Many trans and non-binary students have fantastic experiences of higher education, which exceed their already high expectations. The fact that some wellbeing gaps between trans and non-binary students and their peers disappear while they are in higher education is a testament to the great work many institutions already do in this area. Institutions should build on this work and implement the straightforward, practical steps we outline.

Rose Stephenson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI and an author of the report, said:

This report started from the principle that all students should have an enriching, supportive and safe experience of higher education – and this of course includes trans and non-binary students. Through the data analysed and our interviews with students and colleagues, it is clear that while many trans and non-binary students are having a positive experience in higher education, there are issues in terms of completion rates, awarding gaps and graduate outcomes for trans and non-binary students. The challenges with graduate outcomes lie with employers as well as institutions. However, this issue needs careful attention so that trans and non-binary graduates can access the jobs market on an equal footing to their peers.

HEPI invites policymakers, educators, and students to engage constructively with the findings and join the ongoing dialogue to foster a more inclusive higher education landscape.

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