Universities must meet LGBT+ applicants’ expectations of a great student experience

LGBT+ applicants have high hopes for their time in higher education. Ben Jordan wants universities to ensure those hopes are fulfilled

Ben Jordan is Senior Policy Unit Manager at UCAS

Starting a university or college course, or apprenticeship, is a daunting time for anyone, whether studying at the institution down the road or moving to a completely new part of the country.

I remember my own experience, moving to a city for the first time, the first in my family to go to university. I lay awake at night wondering – would people like me? Would I make friends? Would I fit in? Would I manage on the course? And what if I don’t?

LGBT+ students’ experiences

For some students, these questions have even more significance, and for some it presents additional considerations around self-identity. Today UCAS has released Next Steps – What is the experience of LGBT+ students in education? to explore how the over 40,000 LGBT+ students that apply to higher education navigate these questions, and what their experience has been to date.

Overall, the findings are positive – 47 per cent said that their experience being LGBT+ at school or college was good, and 41 per cent said their experience was neutral. Of those that had a good experience, over three-quarters said this was due to being accepted by their peers. While this is positive, we must remember that 12 per cent have not had a good experience, with bullying cited as a common reason for this. This means that, although significant progress has been made over recent generations, work must continue to promote inclusivity in schools and colleges.

LGBT+ students are also looking forward to their next step – 53 per cent of LGBT+ students expect their overall student experience to be good, and a further 24 per cent expect it to be very good. Equally, LGBT+ students intend to be more open about their identity in HE.

But more than one in ten are not sure how open they will be. The reasons for this are varied, ranging from previous bad experiences to a “wait and see” approach. However, there are circumstances where more tailored transition to their next destination, with personalised information and guidance, could alleviate concerns.

Links to mental health

Today’s report also highlights that being an LGBT+ individual influences your journey to higher education, and what is important to you. Nealy one third of LGBT+ students, and over half of transgender students, look at specific information regarding support services relevant to them, particularly mental health services. There is also strong interest in how LGBT+ friendly the location of a university or college is.

Our recent report on student mental health declarations showed there has been a 450 per cent increase in the number of applicants declaring a mental health condition in their UCAS application over the last decade, now accounting for nearly four per cent of applicants. However, it is our view that the true figure could be double this.

Today’s report highlights that LGBT+ individuals are far more likely to declare a mental health condition in their application, 13 per cent of LGBT+ students and 22 per cent of trans students doing so. It is important that those working in student support services are acutely aware of this intersection, and tailor provision in recognition.

More can be done to tailor the journey to higher education, more for LGBT+ students from the very start to the very end of their experience, ranging from the initial exploration of their opportunities with personalised information, advice and guidance to help them with their chosen path, to enrolment, accommodation, ongoing student support – as well as the application process itself.

UCAS commitments

We recognise we at UCAS can do more to be inclusive of the broad range of students that wish to benefit from higher education and training, and we are committed to expanding the range of gender identities and sexual orientations available for students to select when completing their application. Not only does this ensure students can apply using their true identity, but it also ensures that universities and colleges will have a better understanding of their diverse cohorts.

This isn’t a simple change – the UCAS system plugs into over 300 university or colleges, all using various systems and software. Therefore, this change cannot be done overnight and needs to be carefully managed. However, we are confident that students applying in years ahead will be able to apply in their true identity as we explore the changes.

Fundamental to this change will be our continued work to further personalising the journey of LGBT+ students before and after they submit their actual application, helping raise awareness of support available, and giving a greater understanding of what life may be like in higher education.

The thread running through our research that almost every instance, trans individuals are having a less positive experience, deserves significant attention. Higher education is a unique and exciting period in an individual’s life, and it is important every student is able to go into it feeling positive and excited about their future and the experiences they will have. Today’s report is encouraging and shows that the vast majority do.

However, for me, this makes addressing the concerns of those students that are not feeling positive and excited even more important, and highlights the need to build upon the positive steps that have already been taken to ensure no one is left behind, and that taking that next step is less daunting.

This article is published in association with UCAS.

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