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Trans equality in further and higher education?

We can and should do better – trans equality in further and higher education.

Last week, we published the TransEdu Scotland Report on trans equality in the Scottish further and higher education sectors, drawn from research supported by the Scottish Funding Council’s Impact for Access fund.  Undertaken by myself – Dr Matson Lawrence – and Dr Stephanie Mckendry at the University of Strathclyde, the TransEdu Scotland research investigated the experiences of, and current provision for, trans and gender diverse applicants, students and staff across Scotland’s colleges and universities.

Responding to calls from across the sector to enhance our knowledge and to build an evidence base in this area, this research is the first of its kind to exclusively examine trans equality and inclusion in HE and FE. We collected responses from trans and gender diverse people studying or working across all Scottish universities and at two-thirds of colleges. The findings are striking, and at times alarming, yet – considering the challenges trans people face in most spheres – the findings are altogether unsurprising.

It is difficult to identify an area of further and higher education where trans and gender diverse people are generally not encountering issues. Ranging from navigating administrative systems to personal and interpersonal safety on campus, our research indicates that 85% of respondents faced barriers in direct relation to their trans status.  

The in-depth interviews I conducted alongside the online survey revealed that many trans and gender diverse people had very low expectations, often underemphasising the difficulties they encountered. It seemed that when faced with so many challenges in a range of life arenas, people were understandably disengaging from the emotional consequences. Many also did not feel able to advocate for or champion their equality and inclusion, greatly compounded by feeling fearful of disclosing their trans status to their institution and peers.

Navigating these often daily concerns had detrimental impacts upon trans and gender diverse people’s mental health and wellbeing, alongside their ability to progress and succeed in learning and workplace environments. A number of these issues centred around interactions with students, yet others concerned the conduct of our staff; those who, within and outwith teaching and workplace settings, deny the legitimacy and agency of trans people in sentiments replete with conjecture, ridicule and contempt. At times during the research, I have been truly astounded by the hostility and maliciousness with which some staff and students have been treated.

Considering the intersections, almost half of respondents declared a disability or long-term health condition, and over 90% described their sexuality as other than heterosexual. Many respondents stated they were from working class backgrounds, whilst a number were also BAME / people of colour, care-experienced, estranged, D/deaf, and international students and staff. This serves to reaffirm that by regarding protected characteristics as discrete categories of implicit difference, we may risk overlooking those at the intersections, who are often some of the most marginalised among us.

Having worked and conducted research with various marginalised communities in Scotland, experiences of systemic barriers, disadvantage, isolation and hostility emerge all too often. What begin as personal stories gradually weave into a collective narrative serving to underline that, yes, we can and should do better. The picture painted seems admittedly bleak and may leave many of us across the sector asking – well, what can we do about this?

To facilitate implementation of the research recommendations, we have developed a suite of open-access resources and information for the FE and HE sectors. Hosted on our newly launched sector-leading website – – this centralised resource draws together our work and further resources from across and beyond the education sectors to assist institutions in supporting trans applicants, students and staff. Be sure to watch and share the videos featured on this page; with dialogue drawn directly from interview transcripts, these resources provide invaluable insights into the lived experience of students and staff who are trans or gender diverse.

There is no evidence to suggest that the further and higher education sectors are performing worse than other sectors in terms of trans equality and inclusion. In fact, colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to continue to drive change and to champion the equality and inclusion of trans people across and beyond our campus communities. Already there are examples of innovative practice occurring across Scotland, and indeed the potential for many more – particularly with respect to multi-agency partnership work and knowledge exchange initiatives.

Moving forward, our focus as a sector must shift to implementing the recommendations drawn from the research findings. The conversation on trans inclusion in further and higher education has now been instigated on a national level, and we must harness this momentum to advance our strategy, policy and provision in this area toward an increasingly progressive and equal education sector for Scotland.

Trans is an umbrella term used to denote people whose gender identity differs from the gender assigned to them at birth, while gender diverse and non-binary can denote individuals who experience their gender identity outside the binary of men and women.

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Dr Matson Lawrence, Research Associate, Trans.Edu Scotland - 19 Dec 2017