Gender recognition under threat in UK universities

I read a very disturbing internal email this afternoon. I’m not going to quote the majority of it in order to preserve anonymity, but the central content is of concern to any current or future trans student in Higher Education.

Earlier this year, HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] confirmed a series of changes that they would be making to the HESA Student Record for the 2012/13 academic year, which would have an impact on some of the questions that students are asked during the application and enrolment process. A number of these changes relate to equality issues and the 2010 Equality Act and I thought it would be prudent for us to consult […]

The key changes of relevance are as follows:

(1) There is an existing field Student.GENDER which will from 2012/13 be replaced with Student.SEX. The new Student.SEX field will reflect ‘legal’ biological sex at birth and we have been advised that there will be only two valid entries for this field, either Male or Female.

(2) To complement the new Student.SEX field there will also be an additional field, Student.GENDERID, which is intended to reflect the student’s gender identity based on their own self-assessment. A response to this question, should we choose to ask it, would be optional for students. The ‘suggested question’ from the Equality Challenge Unit for eliciting this information is “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?” and it would be possible for students to respond with ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Information Refused’.

At my university, the current student.GENDER field allows students to identify as “female”, “male”, “other” or “prefer not to say” following intervention from trans activists and past Students’ Union welfare officers. This system, and any similarly progressive approach from other institutions, will be overturned by the new HESA guidelines.

My concerns are as follows:

1) What is “legal” sex? Is it:
(a) my birth sex? (in which case I’m male)
(b) what’s on my passport? (in which case I’m female)
(c) whether or not I have a gender recognition certificate? (in
which case I’m male)

[edit: a skim of the HESA guidelines shows that (a) is not the case, with the university apparently using the phrase “sex at birth” in error]

2) If (a) or (c), then the University is going to revert my “sex” on its forms. This will disclose I am trans to anyone using their records.


3) If (b), then anyone wishing to update their gender will have to out themselves by walking into the university administrative building and presenting their passport.
I had to do this in 2005 and it caused all kinds of weird issues with the Students’ Union and my records. We changed the system in two stages (the last one is referred to in the letter) in order to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

4) The new system erases intersex people.

5) The new system erases people with a non-binary identity.

6) This whole approach has an extremely flawed methodology that will only invalidate the desired data!

I suspect my university doesn’t have much of a choice about how this is carried about, and neither will others. We urgently need to lobby HESA to reverse their policy on this.

I’ll aim to write a more coherent analysis of the situation (inc. the complex role of the Gender Recognition Act) when I’m feeling more coherent.

EDIT: HESA notes changes to the student.GENDER field here. Information on the new (binary) gender identity code can be found here.

17 thoughts on “Gender recognition under threat in UK universities

  1. Looking through the HESA website, it appears that they *already intend* the gender field they currently use to reflect biological sex / legal sex. Neither of which is a very useful or measureable concept.

    However, since we know many trans students who have managed to get their genders recognised in their student records by either a) written request (as the Data Protection Act suggests should happen) b) a letter from a doctor or c) presenting the University with a corrected passport, we know at least *some* universities are likely to implement this in a way that trans students can at least work around.

    However, the practice of having all and only trans students prove what gender they are or what sex they are, widespread though it is, is fairly obviously discriminatory. Why can’t gender be taken from the student’s own self-assessment of which is the best answer?

    • Hi Liam,

      You’re bang on.

      It’s worth noting that some universities have, until now, taken advantage of the “indeterminate” category in order to recognise non-binary identities. It doesn’t contribute to the national statistics in any kind of meaningful way, but at least ensures that students’ identities are respected within the university system. This looks to be impossible under the new system.

      At my university the enrolment and re-enrolment forms allow students to declare their gender without any need for letters/passports/written requests which might otherwise out them. They’re looking at overturning this on advice from HESA – I fear a return to the old system, which outed students left, right and centre.

  2. As Liam notes, the “at birth” phrase used above is incorrect, because HESA say “legal” sex.

    I am assuming that by “legal” sex, HESA actually intended what’s on a birth certificate. However, unless they demand to see the birth certificates of all students then they have no way of knowing this. A student that transitions long before Uni would be recorded as their aquired gender, regardless of posession of a GRC.

    As a result, the data they are collecting is garbage because it will in effect be “gender presentation at enrollment, unless someone has a GRC”. It makes more sense to simply have it represent how someone currently presents themselves, but in any event they probably need to justify recording sex/gender at all in any non-anonymised form. Is it acually useful for anything?

    Also, unless it’s made VERY clear that the GENDERID field is not stored in an anonymous form and is available for staff to see, this probably violates s(22) of the Gender Recognition Act anyway, because it may out Trans folk with a GRC.

  3. I’d like to name a hero of mine: Ralph Hales, who was until earlier this year responsible for CRB checks at London University’s Institute of Education. He helped me through the intrusive and inflexible on-line process of registering with the CRB. Without his help, I would have been misgendered. He then asked how I would like to be treated on the Institute’s records. Such a flexible, sensible and humane approach means a lot.

  4. The HESA Guidelines are online here: http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2301&Itemid=.

    They clearly state: “It will be optional for institutions to collect and supply this data and optional for individual students to answer the relevant questions if asked.”

    This appears to be all to do with the requirements of the Equality Act that institutions should monitor how they are treating minority groups. A lot of people are interpreting this as requiring invasive surveys, but there may be ways around that. Christine Burns may be able to help.

    • Hi Cheryl,

      Thanks for the link, that’s a more cohesive explanation of the changes than can be found elsewhere on the HESA website.

      The problem will come with how universities collect the data. Most institutions require that students fill in forms upon enrolment/re-enrolment, with fields such as “gender” non-optional. In cases (such as at my university) where trans campaigners have ensured that the “gender” field is more open, this isn’t such a problem, but if universities require all students to fill in their “biological” sex as “male” or “female” in line with the HESA guidance (and if they collect data, they *are* required to do so in line with said guidance) then we have a problem.

      I basically agree with your analysis, was just expanding on what I see as the problem.

      Thanks for your contributions, I hope we can pull together as a community/communities on this 🙂

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  7. “This field will replace the current Student.GENDER field and will record the biological sex of the student. The ECU recommended question is ‘What is your sex?'”
    Values: 1 Male, 2 Female

    Non-binary fail: So… the “biological sex” of a pre-op trans woman who’s been on hormones a while? Pert breasts, associated with female biology; a penis, generally associated with male biology! Transsexual people never correspond 100% to what are basically just idealized templates of “male biology” and “female biology”. In a sense we (transsexuals) are all a little bit intersexed.

    Patriarchy fail: “1 Male”

    • ‘Patriarchy fail: “1 Male”’

      Hahaha, indeed! I notice this all the time within quantitative data-gathering techniques…

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