Young people who do not identify as either male or female are flipping a coin to decide which gender to state on their university application form because the organisation in charge of entry provides only two options, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
Other transgender, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming students are delaying or even putting off applying altogether.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which runs the application system for higher education institutions across the UK, insists on individuals stating either "male" or "female" in order to register with the organisation.
And although UCAS provides a gender-neutral title option – Mx – this only extends to someone's prefix and they still have to state either male or female for their gender. This lack of a third option, say campaigners, is deterring applicants, many of whom are only just coming to terms with their gender identity.
Angela and Keith Farnish, the parents of a nonbinary teenager, have been campaigning for the last two years to persuade UCAS to update the registering system and provide for those who don’t identify as male or female, after their child Kaelin initially decided not to go to university rather than have to pretend to be one or the other.
The Farnishes told BuzzFeed News that lobbying UCAS since 2015 has led to the organisation repeatedly promising to change the application system – and failing to do so.
In a string of messages, conversations, and emails between the couple and UCAS, as well as exchanges between an organisation for trans people and UCAS, the admissions service says it will widen the gender field the following year. But each year it does not.
These exchanges began in 2014 following an online petition calling for a change in the system, which the Scottish Trans Alliance discussed with UCAS.
In an email, UCAS told the alliance: “…we will be making changes to the way in which we gather information about gender and sex as quickly as we possibly can…the UCAS change process is a complicated one with a number of dependencies, both within UCAS and external organisations. Due to this the change will not be an immediate one, but it will be within the 2015 cycle and we will strive to ensure it is finalised ahead of the January 15 application deadline.”
But in the summer of 2015, Kaelin Farnish, who has previously spoken to BuzzFeed News, went on the UCAS website to register with the service, and discovered that there were only two options for gender.
“Kaelin said, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to university, because I can’t fill it in,’” Angela Farnish, a pupil support teacher, told BuzzFeed News.
Concerned, her husband Keith phoned UCAS and conveyed the problem. “They said that it was the intention [to change the system],” he said, and “that it would be the following year.”
Reassured that the updates to the system were going to be made, the Farnishes accepted the response and made a suggestion to their child, who, their parents said, was anxious about both the application process and coming to terms with being nonbinary.
“We had to try to persuade Kaelin [to fill in the application] so we just said, ‘Well, flip a coin and just put whichever one it is, because you can’t get beyond the first screen on UCAS without choosing your gender.’”
This worked, but the following year Angela asked her pupils who were then registering with UCAS to show her the form: It had not changed. Keith contacted UCAS again. “The date shifted again: 2017,” he said.
This year, the same process happened: Angela Farnish discovered through her pupils that the system had not been changed, and Keith contacted UCAS. In July, he said, a spokesperson for the organisation assured him that the application form would be changed in 2018.
But recent exchanges forwarded to BuzzFeed News now state the changes won’t come in until 2019. A message from UCAS to the Farnishes admits that the current situation is “not ideal” but they are “currently researching what the best option will be” and “we are planning an ‘other’ box under gender”.
“I don’t believe they have any intention of doing this,” said Keith, who because of the string of delays thinks UCAS is fobbing them off. Angela, meanwhile, said she routinely sees the negative effects of these delays on her pupils.
“It’s not just about nonbinary people,” she said. “We have a lot of pupils who are going through transition but don’t want their parents to necessarily know, and are looking at uni as being that point when they can be in their new identity.”
Other pupils, she said, simply haven’t yet decided on their gender identity. “So it’s not necessarily about having a nonbinary option, it’s also about the fact that those pupils at 16 or 17 have to choose a gender [on the form] when that’s a massive thing for some of them and a real cause of stress and anxiety.”
Angela said she now suggests to young people struggling with the gender field on the UCAS form that they should flip a coin. Many of them, she added, have no idea whether their stated gender will affect things like accommodation when they arrive at university.
“I’m supporting one young person who is in the process of writing a personal statement, who is starting on their journey of where they’re at in terms of gender, and they feel very stressed about the whole thing,” she said. “So I spoke to them about ‘how about flipping a coin?’ and it’s given them some freedom to be able to carry on with that UCAS application without that stress. They hadn’t got past that first screen and [were] delaying the application because they didn’t want to fill that in.”
Both Farnishes are baffled that such a large organisation as UCAS, which deals with millions of young people, would take years to upgrade its system to reflect those who use it. Last year UCAS’s income was £42.2 million.
“You would think that UCAS, which every student in the UK has to go through, would be one of those organisations that would be inclusive,” said Angela.
By contrast, the Farnishes, inspired by their child, have together lobbied a number of organisations to offer more than two gender options on application forms, and been successful. Metro Bank, after Kaelin Farnish spoke to BuzzFeed News in 2016 about their inability to open a bank account without stating they were either male or female, became the first high street bank in Britain to introduce alternative gender options in the application process. The same thing then happened with student proof-of-age ID cards, because of the Farnishes, and with the UK Maths Challenge.
But even the language used by UCAS on social media remains binary, the Farnishes said. A recent Facebook post on the service’s page states: “Support your son or daughter as they apply to uni.” Why, asked the Farnishes, could “child” not be used instead?
When approached by BuzzFeed News with the Farnishes' concerns about repeated failures to implement changes to their system, Ben Jordan, senior policy executive at UCAS, said: “We are sympathetic to the circumstances the Farnishes are experiencing and ensuring the application system is both fair, easily understandable, and accessible to all is a priority for UCAS.
“We already offer the gender neutral ‘Mx’ as a title option and we are working on providing a fuller solution for this issue. UCAS is currently redeveloping its Apply service, and as part of this, we will be adding further options for answering the ‘gender’ selection question, beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’.
“We are also scoping the introduction of additional gender identities for applicants to select from as part of the launch of our new application management service and are looking at a number of options for self-declaration beyond ‘other’. It remains our ambition to deliver these improvements by 2019.”