The continuous education of LGBTQ+ identities and issues, which universities have to engage in, will always remain a challenge.
With the student body changing annually, and with the majority of new students being younger people across the board, there will always be a certain number of LGBTQ+ students who are not yet out to their families and friends. There will also be a certain number of students (and staff) who are questioning their identity and/or may rediscover themselves while at university, including their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
We know a lot of Students’ Unions and universities have variations of LGBTQ+ student groups and staff networks but overall universities have a great responsibility in ensuring LGBTQ+ inclusion is constantly evolving.
Educating students, staff, and other stakeholders, regarding LGBTQ+ identities and lived experiences is not easily done. With a lot of main communication touch points across the year being around deadlines, exams, wellbeing, and stress management, raising awareness for the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups, can fall short.
The constantly evolving LGBTQ+ terminology adds additional challenges that universities need to consider. While we see more and more proactive approaches from a lot of institutions, they will always benefit from empowering their LGBTQ+ student and staff groups to take a lead role in supporting the continuous education of fellow students and staff. Ensuring policies and procedures are LGBTQ+ inclusive (for example having a ‘Transitioning at University’ policy), being explicit within bullying and harassment policies and procedures and ensuring students and staff know where to find them, should always be a priority.
While more and more institutions implement equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies as well as committees to oversee the development and implementation of all activities, there are still universities who do not have a dedicated diversity and inclusion team for every school or faculty, let alone a well-developed strategy.
This can mean that practical, quick changes and implementations which could have a big and positive impact on the LGBTQ+ community (such as reviewing gender neutral facilities, ensuring all policies are LGBTQ+ inclusive, and both staff and students know about them, etc.,) sometimes fall behind.
In addition, any diversity and inclusion team – or even individual diversity and inclusion leads – often operate as a central function instead of being able to tailor their work to the needs of different schools and faculties. Student experience roles tend to include aspects of diversity and inclusion, but more universities would benefit from having a structured and dedicated diversity and inclusion team which can drive the development and delivery of a proper strategy across all schools and faculties.
This way universities can ensure meaningful education of challenges that the LGBTQ+ and other minority groups are facing, and most importantly that campuses, the learning environment and the overall university culture all become more inclusive.
All of these challenges apply not just for students, but also to staff. University staff, especially from marginalised backgrounds, can often feel left behind due to the constant focus on the student body and the student experience. Ensuring inclusion strategies are developed and held to account with both student representation and staff is hugely important. Universities need to recognise the responsibility they have to support the establishment and ongoing development of staff networks.
Committee members of staff networks often do the work on top of their other work, instead of having the structural support of being able to dedicate x amount of hours a month as part of their committee role. This inevitably impacts the success of any networks and creates challenges to successfully recruit and retain members and engage the wider staff (and potentially student) body to drive the network’s aims and wider diversity and inclusion across the institution.
Undoubtedly, the impact of the pandemic puts even more pressure on universities to ensure they proactively drive LGBTQ+ inclusion.
A lot of research highlights that Covid-19 has impacted LGBTQ+ communities in a lot of different ways. Not all LGBTQ+ students and staff live in a safe environment, for example. While the pandemic has created challenges for all students and university staff to thrive in their studies, teaching, and other roles, it has arguably had an even greater impact on students and staff who are LGBTQ+.
Having to hide that you are LGBT at home, not being able to access support services and groups such as student/staff networks and advice services, having less access to healthcare due to the health system being overwhelmed by Covid-19, are just a few examples of that. While navigating the pandemic, universities subsequently have to consider different ways to support LGBTQ+ students and staff.
Important first steps could include collaborating with their LGBTQ+ staff network and student group to identify needs and potential changes for the LGBTQ+ community. If these groups don’t exist yet, encouraging students and staff to start one would be just as important. Other important steps are ensuring they have a dedicated diversity and inclusion team, a well-developed strategy, and potentially work with external partners. This equips institutions with the resources and skills they need to ensure their LGBTQ+ students and staff are safe, supported, and can succeed at their studies, teaching, or whichever role they may hold within the university, despite the impact of Covid-19.
Now more than ever, LGBTQ+ students and staff need to know that universities are proactively working on creating safe spaces, LGBT inclusive processes and facilities, and an overall inclusive campus which celebrates diversity.
In my next article on this subject, I will be discussing the role of governors in supporting a university to be truly inclusive for LGBTQ+ students and staff, and how they can help increase representation.
Meike Imberg is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education strategy and transformation.