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Research update — Supporting careers of LGBTQIA+ students in Australian universities

One of 17 projects funded under the 2020/21 round of the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, this research aims to identify best practices for universities to support the careers of LGBTQIA+ students, particularly during COVID-19.

This month, Chief Investigator Dr Zhou Jiang from Flinders University provides a progress update, including preliminary findings from 25 student interviews conducted under Stage 1 of the project.

Project summary

Australians who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and more (LGBTQIA+) face tremendous challenges in preparing careers through higher education. However, there is very limited knowledge on how they are being supported to achieve better career outcomes and what unique expectations they hold for university support systems. Investigating these areas through Australian-wide interviews and surveys, this project aims to identify best practices for universities to support the careers of LGBTQIA+ students generally and during COVID-19 specifically. Findings will inform high education policy and practice to maximise the success of LGBTQIA+ students.

Research activities and preliminary findings

In the early stages of the research, we sought advice and input from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual plus (LGBTQIA+) student community and the university’s diversity and inclusion unit. In consultation with prominent LGBTQIA+ student leaders, experienced staff supporting LGBTQIA+ students, and researchers with expertise in LGBTQIA+ studies, the research team devised and refined our initial interview protocol, survey instrument, and participant recruitment process. Ethics approval was sought, and successfully obtained from, Flinders University.

Following ethics approval, 25 interviews with current tertiary students who self-identify as an LGBTQIA+ individual were conducted. The participants were from five states, in both urban and regional areas, and they represented all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ansexual+ groups. Most were in their 20s while a few were in their 30s and two were over 40. In sum, the recruited participants came from a diverse background.

Based on these interviews, the following preliminary findings have emerged:

  • The majority of participants indicated that it was necessary for universities to provide LGBTQIA+ students with career support/guidance that is additional to, or different from, the general career support/guidance available to all university students. Even though this need for additional/different career support for LGBTQIA+ individuals was widely supported elsewhere, there was very little experience of additional/different career support being provided by tertiary institutions.
    • A small minority of participants indicated that they did not think additional/different career support/guidance for students who identify as LGBTQIA+ was necessary. The main concern with the provision of additional/different career support/guidance was a perceived move away from equal status with students who did not identify as LGBTQIA+.
  • Unanimously, interviewees suggested they needed positive representation of LGBTQIA+ student members in career paths and expressed an urgent need for role models and mentors.
  • Additional career support ideas commonly suggested for the university included: advice on queer-friendly workplaces and advice on safety of “coming out” within a workplace. Such LGBTQIA+ specific advice is largely missing or not perceived by interviewees.
  • A key finding is the need to take an intersectionalist approach to any additional/different career support/guidance. A number of participants noted that career concerns regarding the impact of sexual orientation would be quite different from that regarding the impact of gender identity, where the latter would require additional advice and support to be provided to students with a transgender identity. Additionally, a number of participants noted the need to account for interrelated aspects of identity, such as mental health and wellbeing, and racial identity.

COVID-19-related findings:

  • Related to the impact of COVID-19, the majority of participants felt positive about their tertiary institutions’ general reaction to the global pandemic. Most participants believed that the COVID-19 pandemic had not produced overly negative impact on their career exploration. However, there were somewhat escalated concerns regarding universities’ support for the health and wellbeing of students who identify as LGBTQIA+, and these concerns could then be a potential barrier to their career focus.
  • Although none of the participants interviewed felt they needed additional support during the COVID-19 pandemic, many noted that they had friends that did require additional support. Overall, there was a concern regarding the removal of key social support structures that are contained within Universities (e.g., safe spaces provided by university clubs/groups). A number of participants commented on the importance of university life for students who are not “out” to their family, or who are lacking support in their home life. Some participants even noted the potential need for housing support for students who identify as LGBTQIA+ who were not safe in their family home.

The final report will be published on the NCSEHE website later in 2021.

Posted 8 March 2021 Posted in LGBTQIA+