News feed: HE stats bow to trans pressure – but is it enough?

The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) announced today that it no longer intends – as it proposed earlier this year – to collect data on the “legal gender” of students.

This appears to be a small victory for the trans community, which reacted with horror at a move they believed ran a high risk of outing people in return for collecting data of little statistical merit – and which led at least one activist to declare that she would now be tearing up her birth certificate.

But does this announcement go far enough? And will the HESA now be able to collect data useable – as they originally intended – for equality monitoring purposes.

The original proposal, made public in January 2012, was for a single database to record the pre- and post-transition status of trans men and women. This was to have been achieved by re-structuring the current database to hold “legal sex”.

Attempts to obtain clarification at the time resulted in some discussion of how this might correspond to “birth gender”, or “legal gender”, and whether this differed from “identified gender”.

This proposal drew criticism because it appeared to have been put forward without any formal consultation of trans organizations: created a risk of outing individuals and, given the high degree of resistance such a move was likely to attract, could not be trusted to produce any meaningful data on trans identity in UK Higher Education.

Further criticism came from intersex individuals, who suggested that the HESA’s decision to reduce the categories that could be recorded in their new structure effectively erased intersex altogether.

HESA today responded to this criticism by proposing a new set of amendments. The new database structure will include two fields: SEXID and GENDERID. The former will be able to take three values (instead of the two proposed by the previous announcement), and these will be “male”, “female” or “other”. The latter, according to the HESA, is “more appropriate for people who associate with the terms intersex, androgyne, intergender, ambigender, gender fluid, polygender and gender queer”.

They will NOT be including a “prefer not to say” option, although a spokesman for HESA clarified that an original recommendation from the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) DID include this as a possible response.

The GENDERID field qualifies the SEXID field, and is likely to hold a response to the question: “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?”

Three answers are proposed to this: “yes”, “no” and “Information refused”. The latter would be recorded where an individual preferred not to say.

This goes a long way to meeting criticisms levelled at the original proposals, not least because returning the contents of the GENDERID field to HESA will be optional for HE institutions.

HESA do not take advice directly from individual organisations: input on proposals such as these come from the Equality Challenge Unit, a body set up “to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education” across the UK. Individuals wishing to make their views known on equlaities monitoring issues should contact the ECU directly.

According to a spokesman for the HESA: “ultimately it is the Higher Education Funding Councils that determine the data required from the HE institutions. The questions asked of students are not prescribed by HESA – although HESA clearly has a strong advisory role.”

Jane Fae


The most obvious out-take from this story is that of a major institutional body responding to pressure from a minority group. They had not fully consulted before they proposed changes. This led to some very real outrage.

They took this on board – and subsequently, changes are now being proposed.

What may be of slightly more significance – even though it appears merely as coda to this story – is the fact that the HESA, who are a major collector of statistical data, are for the first time prepared to recognise formally non-standard gender identities such as intersex in their data collecting.

The latter have always suffered in the past, when it comes to policy-making, because their very existence is often over-looked by government: that such an important body, statistics-wise, is now to begin collecting data on gender identities other than “male” and “female” is therefore an enormous and possibly historic step forward.

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5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Lucy Melford said,

    It beats me why such statistics are necessary for students. Surely gender is irrelevant nowadays in the provision of education? I mean, if ‘a student’ wants to study chemistry, or engineering, or nursing, or Old English, or art, or mathematics, wouldn’t their gender be of no concern?

    Or is this to do with the regular analyses to find out whether boys are getting better at passing exams, or whether they are still under-achieving compared with girls?

    I suppose we shouldn’t mind if trans girls come out exceptionally well. My goodness, they should. They have to be socially skilful and quick-witted and in effect (if not in actuality) twin-lobed. It would help if we were all found to be super-intelligent!


    • 2

      janefae said,

      Its equalities monitoring and stems from requirements under the 2010 Equality Act – or at least the University interpretation of same.

      jane xx

      • 3

        Ruth said,

        Moreover, these kind of statistics *are* important (if appropriately anonymised!) as they allows us to chart ongoing gender inequalities within Higher Education (for instance, the so-called STEM subjects that are more likely to lead to well-paid jobs are largely studied by male students)

  2. 4

    Ruth said,

    Thank you for this important update Jane.

    I do wonder how “sex” will be interpreted by individuals. Obviously I’d prefer to see “gender” but I imagine many trans people will respond according to their identity regardless, and I’m glad the “other” category is there. It’s worth bearing in mind that institutions can, if they wish, create additional categories (e.g. “genderqueer”) and map these onto the “other” category.

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