Submission from Stonewall
1. This paper contains Stonewall's response
to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee's
inquiry into students and universities. Stonewall is a national
organisation that has campaigned for equality for the 3.6 million
lesbian, gay and bisexual people across Britain since 1989.
2. Stonewall welcome the Committee's decision
to investigate students and universities. Stonewall believe that
all of the key areas identified by the Committee are important,
but this response will focus primarily on admissions and student
support and engagement.
Although higher education institutions
have made progress in relation to race, disability and gender
equality, sexual orientation equality is still broadly neglected.
Higher education institutions continue to face challenges to successfully
admit and retain undergraduates who are lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience
high levels of discrimination and bullying at school. Their aspirations
may be affectedmaking them less likely to aim to enter
higher education. Homophobic bullying continues into higher education
Estrangement from parents is also common.
Some gay students find that parents stop funding them after they
come out as gay. It is difficult to be re-assessed. This impacts
on attainment and can lead to students dropping out.
The combination of financial difficulties
and discrimination can lead to a disproportionately high drop-out
rate for lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
If higher education institutions' support
infrastructures were better equipped to respond to the particular
needs of some gay students, it is likely issues could be resolved
before students dropped out. This would significantly reduce non-completions.
If the Local Authority Assessment process
was better prepared to respond to parental estrangement this would
also impact on non-completion rates.
The higher education sector has a limited
understanding of the barriers gay students face and often fails
to appreciate the short, medium and long-term impact these barriers
may have on admissions, retention and participation.
Stonewall believes that higher education
institutions need to demonstrate a greater commitment to sexual
3. Stonewall welcomes the Committee's focus
on admissionsin particular the commitment firstly to examine
the implementation and success of initiatives to widen participation
and secondly to consider the role of Government in developing
and promoting fair access and admissions policies for the UK Higher
4. The widening participation agenda is
about increasing not only the numbers of young people entering
higher education, but also the proportion from under-represented
groups. However, Stonewall understands that higher education institutions
continue to face a wide range of challenges to successfully recruiting,
and retaining, undergraduates who are lesbian, gay or bisexual.
There are also complex interactions between students who are lesbian
and gay and from low-income backgrounds.
5. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience
a high level of discrimination when at school. The School Report,
2007, which surveyed over 1000 young lesbian, gay and bisexual
pupils, found that 65% have experienced direct bullying and half
of these students have skipped school because of it. The research
also found that gay pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds are
twice as likely as white pupils to disagree with the statement
"I plan to go to university or college when I finish school"
and three times more likely to disagree with the statement "It
is important for me to finish school with good qualifications."
6. Stonewall believes that young people's
experiences at school may affect the choices they make in relation
to further and higher education. For example, young people may
drop out of school or they may not achieve their expected grades
because of bullying. Schools may be reluctant to explain these
particular circumstances in supporting statements and young gay
people may think they will be discriminated against by the university
or college if they disclose their experiences in their personal
7. The widening participation agenda encourages
schools to outline the context in which students have achieved
their grades or predicted grades, for example, the family background
of the student and the average GCSE and A-level rates in their
school. Similar disclosures should be encouraged that outline
whether a pupil has found it particularly difficult to enjoy and
achieve at school because of homophobic bullying.
8. The aspirations of victims of bullying
may be severely affectedlesbian and gay pupils are less
likely to aim to enter higher education as a result. In some cases
bullying can also contribute to mental health issues. Prescription
for Change (2008) found that half of all lesbian and bisexual
women under the age of 20 have self harmed and 16% have attempted
to take their life. The School Report also found that more
than half of lesbian and gay pupils don't feel able to be themselves
9. Young gay people also express concern
about whether they will be able to afford to go to university.
Despite extensive investment in student funding, many potential
students believe that parental contributions are an essential
pre-requisite to attending a higher education course. For lesbian
and gay students, this may be perceived to be an insurmountable
barrier, particularly if parents have indicated that they do not
intend to support their child since they have come out as lesbian,
gay or bisexual. It is very difficult for a potential student
to find information about other options in these circumstances.
This is also an issue for students who have already started a
10. Stonewall welcomes the Committee's focus
on student support and engagementin particular the decision
to examine both the non-completion of higher education programmes
by students and the adequacy of current funding and student support
packages. Stonewall believes that these two areas are inextricably
linked and that gay students may face certain specific challenges
across these connected areas.
11. Through Stonewall's work with young
people we know that for many young gay people university is a
time when they have opportunities to discuss and consider their
sexual orientation. Being away from home, parents and school,
many students feel more able to explore their sexuality and consequently
many come out for the first time while at university.
12. Coming out can be stressful for young
gay people and may have emotional and mental implications. In
some cases coming out can also lead to a breakdown in the relationship
between gay students and their parents.
13. This estrangement from parents often
has serious financial repercussions. After coming out some gay
students find that their parents cease to provide adequate funding
in line with their Local Authority Assessment. It is very difficult
for students in this situation to be re-assessed. This impacts
on attainment and can lead to students dropping out of university.
14. Stonewall would also stress that the
high levels of homophobic bullying in our schools often continue
into higher education. Bullies who have never been told that their
actions are wrong are unlikely to arrive at university with values
of respect and fairness. Further data on this subject will shortly
be available from the Equality Challenge Unit (see paragraph 19).
15. The combination of financial difficulties
and discrimination can lead to a disproportionately high drop-out
rate for lesbian, gay and bisexual students. Although Higher Education
Institutions have made considerable progress in relation to race,
disability and gender equality, sexual orientation equality is
still broadly neglected. No higher education institutions are
in the Stonewall Top 100 Workplace Equality Index and DIUS are
not members of the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme.
16. Stonewall feels these issues are highly
relevant to the Committee's inquiry. If higher education institutions'
support infrastructures made specific provision for lesbian, gay
and bisexual students and were better prepared to deal with their
particular needs, it is likely that issues could be resolved before
they developed into the kind of larger problems that ultimately
result in students dropping out of university. This would significantly
17. Similarly, in relation to the adequacy
of current funding and student support packages, it is likely
that if the Local Authority Assessment process was better prepared
to respond to the issue of parental estrangement among gay students
this would also impact positively on non-completion rates.
18. In conclusion, Stonewall believes that
higher education institutions need to demonstrate a greater commitment
to sexual orientation equality and understand some of the potential
barriers faced by students. Stonewall has a perception that the
higher education sector in general has only a limited grasp of
the unique barriers that gay students face and fails to appreciate
the short, medium and long-term impact that these barriers may
have on admissions, retention and participation.
19. The Equality Challenge Unit, a unit
for advancing equality in Higher Education funded by HEFCE, has
recently commissioned a study conducted by Professor Gill Valentine
of Leeds University to investigate the experiences of lesbian,
gay and bisexual students and staff in higher education. The study
is likely to provide further in-depth evidence about the experiences
of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in higher education, including
information about estrangement from parents. The report is being
launched on 4 March 2009. Preliminary findings indicate lesbian,
gay and bisexual students experience a range of barriers to fully
accessing and participating in higher education.