Data changes raise concerns for trans and intersex university students

January 26, 2012
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Concerns have been expressed this week after it was revealed that the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) is considering changes to the way it records data on sex and gender, with implications for trans and intersex students enrolling at university.

The proposed system would replace the current ‘gender’ field with one marked ‘sex’, with the stipulation that this be the student’s ‘legal sex’ and only offer two choices, male or female, with no opt-out.

Alongside this would be the question “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were originally assigned at birth?” with answer options ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘information refused’.

Equality campaigners have noted that this may cause problems for transsexual students who don’t want to be open about their background, with some regarding it as a private medical matter. Due to the protection given by Gender Recognition Certificates and the fact some trans people have their birth certificates amended, there may be legal complications.

Similarly, under the proposals people who have transitioned without state recognition would be obliged to identify their ‘legal sex’ and not be able to provide their gender identity alone or simply opt out of the question.

People with non-binary gender identities would have no appropriate means of identifying themselves and intersex people would be obliged to register a sex which could erase the reality of their bodies.

“I just don’t think HESA will get accurate data from this because most trans people won’t respond to it,” said Natacha Kennedy, who is an education researcher at Goldsmith’s College, London. “I think it has been done with the best of intentions but without consultation with trans people themselves. You can’t just take an approach from another area of diversity, such as race, and apply it to trans people.

“This is about collecting data but what’s really needed is qualitative research looking at things like whether or not trans people feel safe to come out at university.”

The proposed changes may be an attempt to bring HESA’s work into line with EHRC gender identity monitoring guidance, which has already been criticised for its focus on sex as recorded at birth. A Scottish focus group found that trans and intersex people prefer the existing system.

A spokesman from HESA stressed that the changes have not yet been finalised. “At this stage we are still working with a draft document and we welcome suggestions to improve it. We are trying to bring our work into line with other data standards such as the Census.” He noted that students submitting their data need not fear that it could get into the wrong hands, as it will not be available in a form that enables people to look up individuals.

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