Finn McGoldrick, NUS LGBT Officer (Women’s Place)
Sky Yarlett, NUS LGBT Officer (Open Place)
Do lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) students experience any disadvantage in education because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity? A wide variety of evidence exists to suggest that this may be the case, but we can’t say for certain without additional data.
We know that high proportions of LGBT school pupils experience bullying and that this affects their school work and can lead them to change their educational plans. We know that half of LGB students in higher education report negative treatment because of their sexual orientation from fellow students and 10 per cent from lecturers and other institutional staff, and that trans students are at even higher risk of negative treatment.  We know a third of LGB students and half of trans students have experienced a hate incident during their studies.  We know that more than half of LGB students have seriously considered leaving their course, compared to 38 per cent of heterosexual students.
But in spite of this concerning evidence, many in the further and higher education sectors have been slow to act to ensure equal access for LGBT students. LGBT students seem marginal in the equality and diversity strategies of many colleges and universities. It seems that, in the absence of hard and fast monitoring data that identifies an access problem, an achievement gap, or a retention risk, it’s easy to deprioritise equality for LGBT students.
Though the lack of monitoring data is not an excuse for inaction, this type of data is a crucial tool that both institutions and students’ unions can use to further the equality of different groups of students, and we believe that all education providers should be collecting monitoring data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of their students—as long as this data is collected in the right way.
Many education providers are reluctant to collect this data because they think it might make students uncomfortable. But it is a misconception that all LGBT students will regard this as highly sensitive information. While it is true that some students may be uncomfortable giving their information to their institutions, many others are open and comfortable about their gender identity and sexual orientation. The way the question is asked is far more likely to influence whether students feel comfortable answering it than the characteristic they are being asked about. This does, however, make it clear that it is important for monitoring questions to have a ‘prefer not to say’ option.
NUS LGBT has six recommendations for how to collect monitoring data on students’ sexual orientation and gender identity:
1. Consult with student representatives:Institutions who are planning to introduce sexual orientation and gender identity monitoring of students should work with students’ unions and representatives of LGBT students to ensure that the data is collected in the best possible way.
2. Be clear on how the data will be used: Students are more likely to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity if they understand what the institution plans to do with that data.
3. Create and communicate robust systems for confidentiality: Institutions should make very clear to students how they will keep this information confidential and in particular that it will not be shared with teaching staff or other staff that the students interact with regularly.
4. Give students privacy when they fill in monitoring forms: Students should be able to complete any forms asking them to identify their sexual orientation or gender identity in private. When hard-copy forms are used, staff collecting the forms should not look at students’ answers as they are being handed in.
5. Always include ‘Prefer not to say’: Students should always have the option not to disclose their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (and anything else about their identity).
6. Never use the same question to monitor sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity: Sex, Sexual orientation, and gender identity are separate characteristics and should never be asked about in the same question.
Over the course of this academic year, NUS LGBT will be supporting students’ unions to work with their institutions to increase monitoring of student sexual orientation and gender identity. But monitoring is only the start of addressing the inequalities faced by LGBT students, not the endpoint. A clearer sense of where the issues are will help students and staff work together to achieve sexual orientation and gender identity equality.
 Stonewall (2012).The school report: The experiences of gay young people in Britain’s schools.
 ECU (2009).The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans staff and students in higher education.
 NUS (2010).No place for hate: Hate crimes and incidents in further and higher education.
 NUS (2013).The pound in your pocket: Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students.