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Monitoring questions

Recommended questions to ask about equality information.

The collection of data about staff and student identity characteristics is a rapidly evolving area of work that can provide important insights into the demographic diversity of a population. As the information collected pertains to the diversity of a group, rather than relative levels of equality or inequality, Advance HE refers to this strand of work as diversity monitoring. The design of diversity monitoring questions is often contested and needs to align with reporting requirements while also ensuring that staff and students can, as far as possible, describe themselves in ways that reflect how they identify.

Institutions are required to collect and return diversity data to: (i) sector agencies such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA); (ii) regulators such as the Office for Students (OfS); and research funding bodies. When returning data on staff and students to external organisations, such as HESA, data must follow a specific format. However, even with specific reporting requirements, it is possible to tailor questions to match your context. For example, some HESA categories are broad so institutions might wish to ask more detailed questions, for use in internal analysis, that can be aggregated before being submitted to HESA.

Data also plays a vital role within institutions in identifying inequalities and implementing initiatives to address problems uncovered. To assess whether the situation is getting better, worse or remains unchanged, institutions need to ensure data is comparable over time. Institutions may also wish to adopt an approach that is comparable to other institutions in the sector so that data can be used for benchmarking purposes.

Recommendations presented in this guidance document are based on consultation with EDI organisations, other agencies involved in data collection, desk-based research and Advance HE’s knowledge of good practice in UK higher education. Between December 2020 and February 2021, Advance HE engaged in a series of consultative conversations with equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) organisations and sector bodies including the Scottish Funding Council, UCAS and HESA. This involved the circulation of a feedback survey on the draft questions and several one-to-one discussions to assess similarities and differences in approach. Where practical, our guidance also aligns with questions asked and response options provided in the upcoming UK censuses.

With these considerations in mind, Advance HE’s guidance differs from that of some organisations in the sector. Our guidance is advisory only: we do not hold a regulatory or monitoring role. We also acknowledge that it may not be practical or most effective to adopt the same approach to diversity monitoring across all activities (for example, diversity monitoring questions used in widening participation activities might differ from the questions used to return student data to HESA).

General notes on equality monitoring

As part of this process, Advance HE recommends providing a statement explaining why the institution is collecting data and the potential benefits of the activity, such as:

When monitoring, Advance HE 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’.

Further notes on equality monitoring


See Advance HE's recommended question for age. When returning data to HESA, institutions will need to collect information about an individual’s date of birth. Find out more.

Caring responsibilities:

Understanding the unpaid caring responsibilities of individuals can inform work to address any barriers to participation in higher education that might exist. Find out more.


Advance HE 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. Find out more.

Ethnicity and race:

Advance HE recommends asking about ‘ethnicity or ethnic background’, which is also inclusive of racial (eg Black, white) and/or national groups (eg African, British, Caribbean, and so on). Find out more.


Advance HE recommends asking a question about gender rather than asking a question about sex. This ensures equality efforts are mindful of the different ways gendered norms and marginalisations occur, and is inclusive of a diverse range of gender identities. Find out more.

Marriage, partnerships and relationships:

Outside of Northern Ireland, there is no legal requirement to collect data on marriage and civil partnerships. Find out more.

Pregnancy, maternity and parental leave:

National data and research have highlighted how pregnancy, maternity and parental leave have an impact on people’s careers. Advance HE recommends optional monitoring of pregnancy and maternity. Find out more.

Religion and belief:

Advance HE recommends that a question about religion and belief is accompanied by text explaining that its purpose is to ensure that policies and practices do not discriminate against people observing a religion or belief, or those who have no religion or belief. Find out more.

Sexual orientation:

Advance HE’s recommended question asks about sexual identity (how someone identifies their sexual orientation), which is most relevant for studies of inequality in the higher education sector but might not count staff and students who do not identify with the identity terms listed in the question. Find out more.

Social background:

Capturing a person’s social background is not straight forward. Indicators commonly used in widening participation initiatives include students’ parental education, measures of rates of participation in higher education in their local area (TUNDRA and POLAR4) and school type (state or fee-paying). Find out more.

Trans identity/history

Trans is a term used to describe people whose gender is not the same as the sex they were registered at birth. Advance HE advises against asking about a respondent’s gender and sex on the same monitoring form as this may confuse respondents and, when response options are combined, inadvertently out someone who identities as trans. Find out more.