How do we give students the best possible uni experience?

Dr Michael Keenan of Nottingham Trent University looks at some of the problems gay and trans students still face and asks for their help

How do we give students the best possible uni experience?
06 March 2013

Britain’s Student Pride took place last weekend (1 to 3 March) in Brighton and saw gay, bi, trans and other students get together for a weekend of fun, debates and making new friends. Student Pride is a celebration of achievement and the positive experiences of many LGBTQ students; however it is also a reminder of the work to be done, and the continuing challenges facing LGBTQ students in today’s universities.

University is often seen as a time of both academic and personal development. For many young people it is the first time they have been away from home for a significant period. So going away to university is often a time of both excitement and apprehension, as young people make key decisions about their short and long term futures.

At the same time, the distance from home allows for the freedoms and opportunities associated with a new place, new peers, and new context which can lead students to a greater openness with themselves and others.

University is also often seen as a supportive location which homes liberal thinking and accepting communities. However this does not take away from the sense of concern and vulnerability which are associated with change.

This can particularly be the case for young LGBTQ people, thus sexuality is often a key influence in the decisions some LGBTQ people make around higher education.

Social scientist Richard Taulke-Johnson in his reflections on the educational choices of gay men entering university, illustrates the appeal of distance from home for some, and the appeal of particular towns, cities or locations with accepting reputations.

British gay campaign organization Stonewall has it’s own guide, Gay by Degree, that also shows sexual identity is one of the key influences in LGBTQ people’s educational decisions. Focusing on publicly available information Gay by Degree surveys the publicized university provision of support and recognition for LGBTQ people.

However, despite the recognition of sexuality’s influence on students’ decision making, research into campus climate and student experience has remained infrequent, and generally focused on the US. This research continues to uncover negative experiences including continued fear and discrimination in the lives of LGBTQ undergraduate students.

In the UK two studies published in 2009 (one commissioned by the Equality Challenge Unit; and one by social scientist Sonja Ellis) illustrated positive developments in the higher education sector. But they also uncover a continuing presence of negativity and exclusion for LGBTQ students.

Stonewall’s Gay by Degree work has encouraged universities to reflect on what they offer to LGBTQ students. But it is not always clear these efforts have the right effect at ground level and ensure a safe, welcoming and accepting community and context for LGBTQ people to explore, and be open about who they are.

The influence of fellow students, staff, university policy, institutional engagement with events such as Pride or LGBT history month, incorporation of LGBTQ experiences in classes and the presence of support on campus, can all have an effect on the experiences of LGBTQ people attending universities.

Our new coming out and fitting in project (Cofi project) is based at Nottingham Trent University, and funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project aims to further knowledge and understanding of the experiences of LGBTQ students in UK universities. We aim to do this by collecting narratives through Facebook, email and survey methods. As well as this, the project also explores the views of members of LGBTQ student societies concerning their university and their experiences with other staff and students.

The Cofi project is still looking for people to take part, so after supporting Student Pride, please come and find us on Facebook here and Twitter (@thecofiproject) to share your experiences, positive, negative, or otherwise, and join us in exploring the variety of experience out there.

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