Cambridge women’s colleges and trans students: The case for clarification?

Image credit: Steve Cadman

Cambridge occupies a relatively unique position as a university that continues to have women’s colleges.

However, there remains some ambiguity over the status of transgender and non-binary students in relation to Cambridge’s three women’s colleges, Murray Edwards, Lucy Cavendish, and Newnham.

The Cambridge Student recently sent Freedom of Information Requests to Newnham, Murray Edwards, and Lucy Cavendish, requesting clarification on their policy towards trans students, including students who decide to undergo gender transition during their time at the college, and the wider admissions process.

In their responses, all three colleges emphasised their support for the rights and interests of transgender students, although none appear to have a specific or clear written policy on the issue, instead preferring to treat it on a case- by-case basis.

Newnham, while acknowledging that they have no written policies specifically

addressing the matter of trans students, stated that they aim “to protect and respect the rights of transgender and transsexual students including especially their right to privacy and to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association without discrimination on those grounds.”

Murray Edwards, meanwhile, commented that, “Instead of having a general policy”, the College “treats each case in the most appropriate fashion for that individual with their best interests in mind.”

Neither Murray Edwards nor Newnham provided clarification on their admissions policy for trans students, although it is understood that the former is looking to improve clarity on the issue in coming weeks.

Lucy Cavendish said it “actively welcomes transgender and transsexual undergraduates and graduates, and is proactive in addressing applicants’ concerns relating to cisnormativity.”

The college added: “We are, however, by statute only able to admit students who are legally female, so an applicant biologically born male, but identifying as female, would need to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate prior to entry.

“A student biologically born female, but identifying as male, could be admitted to Lucy Cavendish if that student remained female in law.”

In August, it was reported that UCAS was looking into changing its rules demanding that applicants declare whether they were male or female, as it was said to violate the Equality Act.

The admissions service decided to review its policy after the Nonbinary Inclusion Project presented a petition demanding that they change the “application form to ask about gender rather than legal sex and offer more than two options.”

Asked about their College’s policy relating to students who undergo gender transition during their time at University, neither Newnham nor Murray Edwards provided a detailed response.

Lucy Cavendish was exceptional in giving the following comment to The Cambridge Student: “We would support the student, pastorally and academically, within Lucy Cavendish College, for as much of the transition period during which she remained legally female as she wished, and would then assist the student in transferring to a mixed College.”

Commenting on the issue, Rob Cumming, the trans* rep on CUSU’s LGBT+ committee, said: “From what I’ve heard the women’s colleges are currently doing a fairly decent job of looking after their trans students.

“However without a concrete policy this is all subject to change with the turnover of administrative, admissions and pastoral staff involved.

“The University is in the process of re- writing their policy on so-called ‘Gender Reassignment’ and it would be good to see the women’s colleges formulating some kind of written policy off the back of this when it is released.”

Cumming continued, emphasising that such a policy “must be done very carefully, engaging trans students at every turn,” and that “any policy written must be forward-looking with respect to gender as a non-binary concept.”

Nate Dunmore, the LGBT+ Campaigns Officer for CUSU, also pointed out that “treating each case on an individual basis is likely the best course of action when a student comes out to the college as identifying as something other than female – following a strict policy may not be in the best interests of every student.” 

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