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Monitoring questions

Recommended questions to ask about equality information.


Institutions are required to return data on staff and students to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in a specific format. However, you can tailor your questions and the response options to your context. For example, some of the categories HESA requires are broad, so splitting these may allow for a more in-depth analysis of the data. However, when expanding from HESA requirements, you should consider at the outset how the data can be aggregated or otherwise made able to be returned to HESA in the required form. One consideration is that meanings of questions and categories reflect the meanings in HESA requirements.

In recommending wording of and response options to the sector, ECU needs to balance its guidance with what is required by the Equality Act, and what institutions are required to collect and return to HESA, which for students is also related to what UCAS collects. Consideration also needs to be given to the ability to compare data with prior years, and with other data sources for benchmarking. With all of these considerations, we acknowledge that approaches to some questions and response options by some organisations in other sectors differ from ECU’s guidance.

ECU also provides recommendations for future changes to equality monitoring to HESA and to other relevant sector bodies, as good practice develops.

Equality monitoring is a complex and evolving area, so institutions are encouraged to review ECU guidance and their own monitoring questions and response options at regular intervals.  There are also changes made to the HESA staff and student record data collections each year, which may have implications for equality data. The below updated recommended questions and response options reflect HESA’s requirements for the 2017/18 data collection.

There are other considerations for equality monitoring in the college sector, leading to slightly different recommended questions and response options. ECU will shortly be publishing a guide to equality monitoring for colleges in Scotland.

General notes on equality monitoring

Before asking equality monitoring questions, ECU recommends providing a statement explaining why the institution or college is doing so, and the benefits of equality monitoring, such as:

[Institution] aims to have an inclusive environment for all staff and students, by identifying and removing barriers in our practices. Completing this monitoring form will help us achieve this, and also help [institution] meet our obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

While it is voluntary to disclose this information, doing so will enable us to better understand the composition of our workforce/student body and examine our practices fully.

Your answers will be treated in the strictest confidence, and all data disclosed will comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. [Insert statement about institution’s confidentiality policy].

To find out more about the work [institution] is doing to meet the requirements of the Equality Act, please contact [name] or visit [website link]

When monitoring, ECU recommends listing equality areas and response options alphabetically.

It is important that staff and students have the option to participate in monitoring exercises without having to disclose, for example by giving the option ‘prefer not to say’.


Age >

What is your date of birth?

Disability >

ECU has updated its recommended question and response options for disability status to better reflect both legal developments and the social model of disability. This updated wording is compatible with HESA requirements.

We recommend including additional explanation for this question, such as

Under the Equality Act 2010, a person is considered to have a disability 'if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. ‘Substantial' is defined by the Act as 'more than minor or trivial'. An impairment is considered to have a long term effect if:

  • it has lasted for at least 12 months
  • it is likely to last for at least 12 months, or
  • it is likely to last for the rest of the life of the person.

Normal day-to-day activities are not defined in the Act, but in general they are things people do on a regular or daily basis, for example eating, washing, walking, reading, writing or having a conversation.  Only serious visual impairments are covered by the Equality Act 2010. For example, a person whose eyesight can be corrected through the use of prescription lenses is not covered by the Act; neither is an inability to distinguish between red and green. The same logic does not apply to hearing aids. If someone needs to wear a hearing aid, then they are likely to be covered by the Act. However, both hearing and visual impairments have to have a substantial adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities in order for a person to be covered by the Act.

Do you have an impairment, health condition or learning difference that has a substantial or long term impact on your ability to carry out day to day activities? (tick all that apply)

  • No known impairment, health condition or learning difference
  • A long standing illness or health condition such as cancer, HIV, diabetes, chronic heart disease, or epilepsy
  • A mental health difficulty, such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety disorder
  • A physical impairment or mobility issues, such as difficulty using your arms or using a wheelchair or crutches
  • A social/communication impairment such as a speech and language impairment or Asperger’s syndrome/other autistic spectrum disorder
  • A specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or AD(H)D
  • Blind or have a visual impairment uncorrected by glasses
  • D/deaf or have a hearing impairment
  • An impairment, health condition or learning difference that is not listed above (specify if you wish)
  • Prefer not to say

The use of 'D/deaf' incorporates those who identify as audiologically deaf and those who are deaf and identify as part of a social and cultural community of deaf people.

In Scotland, institutions and colleges have a responsibility under the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 to improve services for BSL users. Therefore ECU recommends a follow up question for those who identify as D/deaf or have a hearing impairment:

Are you a BSL user?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Prefer not to say

The HESA record classifies those with multiple impairments as ‘two or more impairments and/or disabling medical conditions’.

This approach results in a loss of information regarding the nature of the impairments. We recommend institutions allow people to select more than one impairment category in a list.

This question could be supported by further questions around providing reasonable adjustments, for example:

To help your employer/HEI/college ensure appropriate support and/or adjustments are in place, please explain in the box provided below if you will need any facilities or support relating to your impairment, health condition or learning difference. This might for example include particular adjustments such as materials in accessible formats, or extra equipment


Ethnicity >

What is your ethnic group?

ECU recommends providing explanatory text, such as ‘ethnic group is about the group to which you perceive you belong’.

As with all of the monitoring questions and response options, ECU recommends listing options alphabetically, for example ‘Arab, Asian, Black…’ etc.

HESA coding frameworks for response options differ in each nation, so it is recommended to check the links below for the response options for the nation in which your institution is based.

We recommend that you break down the categories as much as possible to explore the experiences of different minority ethnic groups in more detail.

For example, HESA do not require data on a range of white minority ethnic groups. However there may be issues specific to staff and students who identify as this, for example, Irish, Polish, other European.

While HESA collects data on ‘Gypsy or Traveller’, ECU recommends the wording Gypsy/Roma/Traveller. We acknowledge the limitations of this category, as these groups are different. Institutions could consider separating these categories into ‘Gypsy or traveller’ and ‘Roma’, though numbers are likely to be small.

When asking questions about ‘mixed’ ethnic groups, institutions can consider the wording ‘mixed/multiple’ in consultation with staff and students, which is inclusive of how some people identify.

Developments leading to the 2021 census are likely to lead to changes in ethnicity monitoring.

Gender reassignment >

ECU has modified its recommended monitoring question for gender reassignment. This change will be reflected in HESA data collection for the 2017/18 staff record.

Does your gender identity match your sex as registered at birth?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Prefer not to say

Questions about gender reassignment should always be asked separately from questions about sexual orientation.

When a question on 'sex' is asked, questions should not simultaneously be asked on 'gender' as this may inadvertently out trans people.

ECU recommends asking either a question on sex and then gender reassignment, or asking a question on gender and then gender reassignment.

It is not appropriate to offer a choice between identifying as male, female, or trans.

Most trans people do not consider themselves to be a 'third sex', and may take offence at questions worded in this way.

Security of data

There are special legal provisions to ensure that data on gender identity is stored securely and this information is not passed onto third parties without express permission.

We recommend that when data concerning gender identity is collected, institutions ask for permission to store this information by including a follow-up question such as the one below:

Information about gender identity is considered sensitive personal data under the Data Protection Act. We want to make sure that we have permission to store this data for the purposes of monitoring and advancing equality and diversity in higher education. Please indicate if you give us permission to store this information and use it in this way.

  • Yes
  • No

ECU's publication Trans staff and students in higher education contains a section on monitoring trans staff and students, including additional questions to consider.

Pregnancy and maternity >

Pregnancy and maternity have been proven by national data and research to have a significant impact on women’s careers.

ECU recommends optional monitoring of pregnancy, collected annually and on recruitment.

Monitoring will enable universities to identify how many staff are likely to be taking maternity leave in future. It will also help the sector as a whole to better understand the impact of pregnancy on career progression. Data will also be able to ensure that the benefits, facilities and services for staff are adequate in meeting the needs of employees who are pregnant or have taken maternity leave.

In terms of maternity, data from university personnel records around legally defined leave (as compared to asking staff the question) may not capture information for staff who have been working for an institution for under 9 months or who were pregnant or recently pregnant at recruitment stage.

Although there is no legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010 to monitor paternity leave, adoptive leave, or men taking shared parental leave, HEIs may wish to gather this information to better understand the effect that taking this leave has on career progression.

For both staff and students:

Are you currently pregnant or have you been pregnant in the last year?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Prefer not to say

For staff:

Have you taken any of the following types of leave within the past year?

  • Maternity leave
  • Paternity leave
  • Adoption leave
  • Shared parental leave

For students:

Have you taken time out of your course within the past year following any of the below?

  • giving birth
  • your partner giving birth
  • the adoption of a child

ECU’s Student pregnancy and maternity: implications for higher education institutions contains considerations for HEIs when asking their students for information on pregnancy and maternity.

Religion and belief >

ECU has revised its suggested question for religion and belief. Please note that from 2017/18, return of religion and belief data to HESA will be compulsory for the student record data collection.

Do you have a religion or belief? (England and Wales)

Do you belong to a religion, religious denomination or body? (Scotland and Northern Ireland)

We recommend using the response options provided in the 2011 census so you can compare the data nationally. To improve provision at your HEI, ask questions that make sense to your staff and students locally.

We also recommend that this question is accompanied by text explaining that its purpose is to ensure that the institution's policies and practices do not discriminate against people observing a religion or belief. This could be of particular importance for institutions which have a historic or current affiliation with a particular religion or belief.

Sex >

2017/18 academic year, HESA require HEIs to report data on the sexual identification of staff using the response options of ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘other’. This change brings the staff and student questions on sex into line.

Advance HE welcomes the addition of the response option ‘other’ as it includes staff who do not define as ‘male’ nor ‘female’. However, this development has caused some confusion about how this question aligns with the reporting requirements of HMRC, which requires data on whether a person is ‘male’ or ‘female’ only, for pension purposes.

It is therefore no longer possible to ask staff one question about sex, as staff who select ‘other’ cannot be reported to the HMRC.

Advance HE therefore recommends that HEIs ask staff about sex in two separate surveys at two separate points in time. This recommendation not only avoids confusing staff with multiple questions on sex within a single survey, but also conforms to requirements under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that stipulate that any surveys collecting sensitive or personal information clearly state the purpose for collection.

For HESA reporting, HEIs should ask:

What is your sex?

Male / Female / Other

HEIs must provide staff with all response options. The category ‘other’ covers staff who define as anything other than male or female, this might include staff who are intersex or have a non-UK passport with a gender marker which is not male or female and identities such androgyne, intergender, ambigender, gender fluid, polygender and genderqueer. HEIs should also clarify that this information is being recorded for HESA staff records alongside any additional purposes such as staff/student surveys or the evaluation of equality and diversity initiatives.

On a separate form and at a different time, Advance HE recommends that HEIs provide the following explanation on why further data on sex is being collected and ask:

The HMRC require employers to gather data on employees’ sex. For this reason, we are required to ask the following question and offer two response options only.

What is your sex?

Male / Female

In instances where HEIs collect equality data that is not used to report to HESA or the HMRC, such as staff/student surveys or the evaluation of events, they might wish to ask about gender rather than sex. Although the two words are often used interchangeably, Advance HE believes that asking about gender is more inclusive than asking about sex. An example question might include:

What is your gender?

Non-binary / Man / Woman / Other / Prefer not to say

HEIs should also ask about gender reassignment and not simultaneously ask questions about sex and gender as this may inadvertently out trans people. If you have additional questions on how to support trans staff and students please see our guidance Trans staff and students in HE and colleges: improving experiences.


Sexual orientation >

ECU has updated its recommended question on sexual orientation.

Specifically, ECU recommends including two new categories, ‘asexual’ and ‘queer’. The inclusion of these categories would aid in recognising the group “asexual” which may feel marginalised by response options which do not include them or those who identify as “queer” as opposed to terms which may appear binary-focused.

For the purposes of HESA collections in 2017/18, these categories could be returned to HESA as ‘other’.

Drawing on definitions from Stonewall and Maaple, asexual broadly describes someone who does not experience sexual attraction to people of any gender. For more information, see the Maaple website.

As Stonewall says about queer, this term has now been reclaimed by many LGB+ individuals, particularly young people, who don’t identify with traditional categories around sexual orientation, though it is still viewed to be derogatory by some.

Familiarity and acceptability of the term ‘queer’ has been increased within higher and further education through established disciplinary fields such as Queer Theory, Queer studies and Queer history.

What is your sexual orientation?

  • Asexual
  • Bi/bisexual
  • Gay man
  • Gay woman/lesbian
  • Heterosexual/straight
  • Queer
  • Other
  • Prefer not to say
Marriage/civil partnership >

HESA collects data on marital status in Northern Ireland. Collecting data on marriage/civil partnership outside of Northern Ireland is not a requirement, however the public sector equality duty does apply to marriage and civil partnership in respect of the requirement to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination in employment. Therefore ECU is aware that institutions in England, Wales and Scotland may be monitoring for marriage/civil partnership to identify the impact of this in employment, and we have provided a suggested question below.

Are you currently?

• Cohabiting
• Divorced or civil partnership dissolved
• In a civil partnership
• Married
• Separated (but still legally married or in a civil partnership)
• Single (never married or never in a civil partnership)
• Widowed or a surviving partner from a civil partnership
• Prefer not to say


Caring responsibilities >

Although not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, HEIs need to show how their employment policies do not discriminate against people with caring responsibilities. In the case of staff and students who are carers for disabled people, the Equality Act protects them from discrimination by association. For further information see ECU's revised guidance on the Equality Act.

Scottish institutions will be required to return information to HESA on carer status for students from 2017/18. More information on the HESA carer field is here.

ECU’s suggested question draws on guidance from the Carer’s Trust. Please note that in Scotland it is advisable to replace ‘18’ below with ‘16’ to reflect differences in age of capacity.

Do you have any caring responsibilities?  (tick all that apply)

  • None
  • Primary carer of a child or children (under 18 years)
  • Primary carer of a disabled child or children
  • Primary carer or assistant for a disabled adult (18 years and over)
  • Primary carer or assistant for an older person or people (65 years and over)
  • Secondary carer (another person carries out main caring role)
  • Prefer not to say