On the 16th of December 2021, University College London announced that it did not intend to re-join the Stonewall Diversity Programme or make a submission regarding its workplace equality index.
The UCL Board and University Management Committee claimed that a formal commitment to the Stonewall programmes “may have the effect of inhibiting academic work and discussion within UCL about sex and gender identity,”. Stonewall deny that is the case, stating: “Our work with organisations in no way impacts their ability to uphold free speech, it simply creates welcoming working environments for LGBTQ+ people.”
The Stonewall Diversity programme is the benchmark for the protection, acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ staff and students. It is there not just to protect staff and students, but the university itself as an employer and as a wider organisation, in interpreting and implementing law and regulation around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
Universities must ensure there are appropriate support services to meet their duty of care to LGBTQIA+ staff and students and, most importantly, create a culture of understanding and empathy to ensure they are providing the best learning and teaching environment. They cannot do this without listening to those groups created specifically to develop programs and schemes, and share their knowledge and experience in this area.
As academics, we are responsible for creating a safe environment for trans students and staff alike. Their welfare should be considered a priority, and should not be compromised in the creation of an environment in which their identities and rights are debated by scholars.
We at the Feminist Gender Equality Network (FGEN) believe that the UCL Board have not made the best decision for their university, and agree with Stonewall that their Diversity Programme does not in any way inhibit free speech. We are deeply concerned that “free speech” in this context can often translate to “hate speech without consequences”.
We note that all student and staff groups who have any relevant expertise or informed experience to advise on this decision – including the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee, Out@UCL, UCL LGBTQ+ Equality Steering Group (LESG), UCL UCU, and Students’ Union UCL – have opposed the Board’s decision.
We note that the UCL LGBT+ Network, in particular, described the news as a “huge blow to the entire community of LGBTQ+ students at UCL, who feel less safe and supported in the wake of this decision“. The UCL Students’ Union have said, “We feel that removing this has the potential to create an environment where gender prejudice and transphobic language is justified under the guise of academic freedom.” We at FGEN are in complete agreement with them when they say “It is concerning to see that UCL does not appear to value the views of their own EDI committee on this issue.”
FGEN stands in solidarity with gay, lesbian, bi, trans, non-binary and queer staff and students at UCL.
Student concerns at UCL and elsewhere must be taken seriously, and the structural homophobia, transphobia, and transmisogyny that are often sadly apparent in Higher Education must be addressed.
The higher education sector must also strengthen EDI policies around sexuality and gender diversity in universities to enable an equitable learning environment.
FGEN asks the UCL Board and University Management Committee to re-visit their decision urgently, and prioritise the welfare of their staff and students over politics.