The positive significance of this news is that an increasing number of students trust their institutions to tell them they exist and that they identify differently – with different life experiences, expectations and needs.
LGBT students and students of faith often experience discrimination, bullying and harassment, which makes the disclosure of this new data even more significant. The National Union of Students’ 2014 research, Education Beyond the Straight and Narrow, found that a fifth of LGB+* and a third of trans respondents, have experienced at least one form of bullying or harassment on campus; and a recent article in The Guardian reported that religion-based harassment on campus is growing.
A sense of trust
Individuals have trusted their institutions with their sensitive data. This trust in our institutions is something hard-fought and hard-won by many working and campaigning both within and outside the sector.
Work in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is often behind the scenes, slow to produce results and difficult to measure in any sense of accepted metrics. This leaves it open to both internal and external criticism. In this context, the resilience of EDI practitioners is remarkable.
The power of data
Despite an often contrary perception, effective demographic data collection can be a tool of social liberation and power. Our world changes when people become visible. At a very fundamental level, the inclusion of different identities in data collection is part of this movement to develop social capital through liberation and inclusion.
With this data the higher education sector is offered a renewed impetus to capitalise on the power of EDI and unlock its potential. The recent McGregor-Smith Review identified the potential benefit to the UK economy from full representation of BME individuals across the labour market, through improved participation and progression, as estimated to be £24 billion a year, representing 1.3 per cent of GDP. Besides the clear moral and ethical case for EDI, the financial imperative is clear and cannot be ignored.
We still have work to do
The good news is tempered by the fact that some universities have not provided usable data in EDI areas: for sexual orientation, 18 per cent have not provided data; religion 19 per cent and gender identity 43 per cent.
Also, we still see significant numbers of students who do not wish to provide this demographic information, implying that, in this area, we still have work to do to improve student confidence in our institutions.
The Public Sector Equality Duty requires all public bodies, including universities and higher education institutions (HEIs), to eradicate discrimination, advance equality and foster good relations. An institution’s ability to measure progress against this is dependent on good quality data.
Forging deeper relationships
Accurate student demographic data is fundamentally important in sustaining a world-leading higher education system. Similarly fundamental for successful institutions is how they bring life and context to this data for stakeholders and power brokers to transform services in the interest of students and staff.
The new data makes the presence of students that identify differently a statistical reality. It provides the imperative for HEIs to use and develop their own data and insight, as well as to continue to advance EDI in their local contexts.
Fortunately, higher education has a wealth of innovative good practice in EDI. HEFCE’s ‘Call for evidence of sector-leading and innovative practice in advancing equality and diversity’ led to the development of a searchable web resource of successful projects, including initiatives to improve equalities monitoring and delivering innovative responses.
We have been given the opportunity to build greater trust and deeper relationships with our students that transcend their time at our institutions and deliver a deeper and more inclusive learning environment – where identity is respected, barriers are actively understood, identified and mitigated.
*The term LGB+ includes respondents who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or ‘in another way’.