Transgender students more likely to drop out of university

Transgender students fearful of political climate and face additional barriers but many still thrive at university, report says

May 23, 2024
A woman at a demonstration is draped in an LGBTQ flag
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Half of transgender and non-binary students have considered dropping out of university and they tend to have lower continuation rates than their peers, according to new analysis.

Researchers working on a Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) report heard how transgender and non-binary students felt they lived in a “climate that is playing on our downfall”, with a government that was “actively hostile”.

These groups have been thrown into the centre of a debate in higher education in recent years that asks how best to protect students from harassment while balancing universities’ responsibilities to promote free speech.

The Hepi study – the first to collate various data sources to build up a more evidence-based picture of the experiences of transgender and non-binary students – says the “line where robust discussion and disagreement crosses into harassment or discrimination can be complex and nuanced”.

Campus resource: ‘Strengthening institution-wide commitment to trans inclusion is more important than ever’

It recommends that “universities take steps to educate students and staff on engaging in informed debate which is, as much as possible, respectful; to engage a wide variety of perspectives; and to empower all groups of students to put forward their views”.

The study also finds that transgender and non-binary people face additional challenges throughout their university experience and beyond:

  • Nearly a quarter of transgender applicants have experience of care and are more likely to have a disability, potentially adding barriers at the point of applying to university
  • Half of transgender students and 49 per cent of non-binary students have considered withdrawing from university – most commonly because of mental health issues. This compares with 28 per cent of the whole student population
  • Sixteen per cent of transgender students failed to progress to the next stage of their degree in the 2020-21 academic year, compared with 10 per cent of other students
  • These students earn on average £2,000 less 15 months after graduation than their peers and are also less likely to be employed in “managerial” and “professional” roles.

The paper also suggests several changes universities could make to improve the experience of transgender and non-binary students, including more consistent data collection; more of a focus on career advice; appointing a named contact for issues related to gender identity and better training for staff.

Josh Freeman, Hepi’s policy manager, said the discussion around the experiences of transgender and non-binary students “has not always been evidence-led” and so the research hoped “to ground the debate in the best data available”.

He said the findings “show that it is difficult to be a trans and non-binary student today and these students may need more support with their well-being, finances and careers than other students”, but there were also positives, with many having experiences that exceeded expectations.

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