Universities are not just a place for learning, but also a place for being, and, at the risk of sounding trite, for finding yourself. To many, they are a place where you can be yourself – perhaps for the first time – and even reinvent yourself to be the kind of adult you want to be. This is especially important for LGBTQ+ students who may be able to explore their identities with like-minded others for the first time.
There can be no doubt, however, that this is harder for some people for others. Groups that suffer oppression and discrimination in society at large, or who do not fit the mould of a ‘typical’ student, might not experience some of the benefits that university can bring.
In recent years, the nature of university has also changed dramatically, albeit largely temporarily, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Learning went online, with lectures carried out over Zoom and many students never coming to campus for a substantial portion of their studies. The effects of this go far beyond learning loss, to something more fundamental to our lives – a loss of wellbeing.
Today we are publishing research that looks at the intersection of students’ wellbeing and their sexual orientation and gender identity. Through analysing data from the Student Academic Experiences Survey, which is run by Advance HE and HEPI and administered to more than 10,000 students each year, we are able to look at how the subjective wellbeing of LGBTQ+ students differ from each other and from their straight or cis gendered peers, how this has changed over time (and particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic), and how it changes over the course of a student’s studies. To our knowledge, this is the first time such a bright light has been shone on LGBTQ+ students’ experiences of higher education.
What we have found in many cases is both stark and shocking. Lesbians, bisexual people, asexual people and queer people experience significantly worse wellbeing on almost every measure, and are especially likely to be categorised as experiencing “low” wellbeing, using the measures developed and used by the Office for National Statistics.
This means that for every LGBTQ+ group except for gay men, wellbeing as students is materially much worse. In some cases this is particularly substantial: asexual people, who are historically under-acknowledged and under-studied, are 50% more likely than straight students to have high anxiety and low happiness. When it comes to life satisfaction and the sense that life is worthwhile, this rises to being twice as likely to experience low scores. Similarly, trans people are consistently more likely to experience low wellbeing than cis students – ranging from 22% to 81% more likely. Nearly half of trans students are classed as experiencing high anxiety.
These levels are changing over time, but these trends don’t meaningfully differ across student groups. Where gaps in levels of anxiety are closing, if they were to follow pre-pandemic trends, it would still take more than 20 years for the gaps to close. This is also not the optimistic story it might first appear. LGBQA students (aggregated for this analysis for statistical reasons) are not getting less anxious. Rather, the gap is closing as straight students become more anxious over time. This is levelling down, not levelling up.
Different groups of people have also responded differently to the Coronavirus pandemic. This analysis is complicated as questions as to whether students are or have been trans only started being asked in 2021, meaning we cannot see how their experience changed during the pandemic. Looking at data on sexual orientation, all students experienced worse wellbeing during the pandemic, but the change differed a lot, with LGBQA students experiencing a 50% larger rise in low happiness and low worthwhileness, for example. In the most recent data, collected earlier in 2022, straight students had returned to their pre-pandemic levels of wellbeing, while LGBQA students continue to experience the after effects. It must be a priority for Higher Education Providers (HEPs) to prevent this difference from becoming baked in.
For trans students, we cannot see pandemic effects, but we can see their responses for the recovery period. Again, this is generally worse than for cis students, and trans students’ anxiety is actually heading in a negative direction, with more than half of all trans students having high anxiety in 2022.
There are some more positive signs when we look at students’ experiences throughout their degrees. While straight students (and gay men) typically experience worsening wellbeing over the course of their degrees, lesbians and bisexual students actually see the opposite relationship – with wellbeing improving over time. Data for asexual people is more mixed.
Perhaps the single most positive finding from our report is for trans people, though this should be placed in a context where their anxiety rises over time, increasing the gap with cis students. At the same time, on all of our other wellbeing measures, trans students become more happy, more satisfied with their lives, and more likely to feel that life is worthwhile over the course of their degrees, narrowing the gap with cis students. This, we hope, means that trans students are experiencing the benefits of higher education, in terms of feeling greater wellbeing. It may also indicate why Covid was particularly difficult for people for whom higher education may provide some degree of relative comfort or safety.
These findings illuminate the scale of the challenge ahead to ensure wellbeing equality is made a reality for all students. As well as there being more to do in practice, there is also more to do in research. Small sample sizes, and the relatively short period for which we have data, especially for trans people, means that we cannot consider intersections with race or household income. We are not done with this data though. In Autumn 2022 we will publish a broader report, and we expect to be back next Summer to report on how much change has occurred for LGBTQ+ people over the next twelve months. Our analysis shows the need for action today, so that outcomes for LGBTQ+ students are better in future.
The full report can be downloaded here.