Club scene. Reputation for research. Proximity to parents’ washing machine. All issues prospective students will be weighing up over the next few weeks as they make final decisions about which university to choose. But some will be asking another question, too – which institution will allow them to feel comfortable about who they are?
It is a question the lobby group Stonewall aims to help answer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students through a new guide to “gay-friendly” universities. The online guide, published today, measures more than 125 institutions against a 10-point checklist, covering issues from whether they specifically mention sexual orientation in their harassment policies to whether they organise special LGBT social events. It supplements these facts with information about the strength of student LGBT societies, any reported incidents of homophopia, and whether honorary degrees have gone to prominent gay or lesbian figures … or prominent homophobes.
Stonewall has studiously avoided producing a league table, arguing that many universities have recently been making efforts to improve, and that “gay friendly” means different things to different students.
Luke Tryl, who researched the guide, says: “Each student will want something different from their university experience and we have been very clear in the guide that this is just one of the many things they should be looking at. All students should feel safe and supported and able to perform well. But some may want a very active gay scene, some will want a community and strong LGBT society, others may want to campaign.” He says the reason for compiling the checklist was to show what every university should have in place as a matter of course.
And some institutions have scored more highly on this list than others. Birmingham, Bradford, Cambridge, Cardiff, the University of Central Lancashire and King’s College London, among others, meet nine out of 10 of the criteria, while Huddersfield, Strathclyde and Teesside meet only two – which means they have more work to do.
“No university scored 10 out of 10, and in some cases there was clearly a lot more that had to be done,” says Tryl. “There is quite a big divide in the sector.”
Contrary to expectation, it is not necessarily a big city/rural divide. While many institutions in big cities did well across both checklist and the more general criteria, so did institutions in much smaller places, such as Aberystwyth.
Gary Nunn, a spokesman for Stonewall, says: “Universities like Aberystwyth come off really well because of their LGBT society. Not having a major gay scene locally means for that very reason they have developed the LGBT society to be very strong.”
Kieran Simpson, Open Place co-ordinator of the society, AberPride, says: “I didn’t really find who I was until I became a student. The main issue is being confident in yourself and universities can help with that by having a strong ethos and strong LGBT society. The society here helped me a lot to find who I was. We are just like a little family.”
Nunn says many LGBT people never get to university because bullying at school harms their self-esteem and stops them reaching their potential. For those who do, university offers a chance to discover their identity, and often to come out, but this can be a huge step, demanding sensitivity and support.
Tryl says the research found that there was a lot of complacency within institutions. “We had some universities saying ‘obviously everyone is treated equally’ without understanding that these provisions should be in place,” he says.
This echoes the findings of a recent report by the Equality Challenge Unit, which promotes equality and diversity in higher education. The report, published last April, found that half the LGBT students who responded had experienced negative treatment from fellow students, while 34% of staff respondents said they had had abuse from colleagues.
Chris Hall, senior policy adviser at ECU, says things are improving. “ECU’s own research of 18 months ago did find homophobia in institutions, and since the issue has been highlighted we’ve seen a great response across the sector from higher education institutions determined to support their LGBT students, as well as staff,” he says.
Two universities, Liverpool John Moores and Imperial College, were included in Stonewall’s index of Britain’s top 100 gay-friendly employers this year, and the institutions that come out particularly well in the new university guide have often made special efforts to improve their LGBT support.
Phil Wilkinson-Blake, chair of the staff LGBT group at Loughborough University, which hit nine of the checklist criteria, says his university has worked hard over the last three years as part of an attempt to become a Stonewall Diversity Champion. The staff and student LGBT groups now work much more closely together and diversity training specifically includes LGBT issues.
Rosie Valerio, director of human resources at the University of Sheffield, which scored eight, says the university has consciously tried to improve its LGBT credentials, holding a day of discussions and workshops last November to help the university reflect on the need to promote diversity.
In London, LGBT academic and non-academic staff from universities across the capital will meet for the first time this week to plan future events and discussions. Matt Evans, convenor of the King’s LGBT network group, who has helped to organise the meeting, says recent work by Stonewall and the ECU, combined with the 2010 Equality Act – which comes into force in October – have brought LGBT issues to the fore in universities.
But he says problems remain with “banal” homophobia, “things embedded in these old institutions, particularly some that have a religious angle to them, that makes for resistance”. And he is worried about the effect of cuts. “Restructuring and the change in morale is not always a conducive environment to start talking about other people’s personal issues that could affect how they are working,” he says.
The hope of LGBT university campaigners is that this will have to change because of pressure from students. “Students are now consumers,” says Nunn. “They expect universities to cater to their specific needs.” The Stonewall guide offers them the chance to add their comments about their experiences at different institutions. And universities be warned: Stonewall has not ruled out producing a “gay-friendly” university league table in future years.
How to be gay-friendly
Checklist of essentials:
1. Have a harassment policy that specifically mentions sexual orientation
2. Train staff on LGBT issues, and make the training mandatory
3. Have an LGBT staff network – if staff feel comfortable about being open, so will students
4. Have a strong LGBT student society
5. Make sure information on LGBT issues is widely available
6. Organise specific events for LGBT students
7. Make LGBT counselling available
8. Consult LGBT students
9. Offer LGBT student targeted careers advice
10. Be a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, a forum for sharing good practice and research on sexual orientation
And preferably, have a lively local gay scene
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