Student gender change sparks debate on admission policies

The fact that a male student could change his gender in order to gain admission to a Masters in Industrial Economics and Technology Management (“Indøk”) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) will be the subject of a larger parliamentary discussion on gender balance in professional degree studies next year.

The unnamed student told business newspaper Finansavisen on 24 July that it took seven weeks to change his gender in order to be admitted to what is traditionally a male-dominated course. He reportedly said it was as easy to report a sex change as it was to change your mobile telephone number.

Given that female applicants were awarded two extra competitive points, the gender distribution had dropped from roughly 70% men to 33% and women were selected for 170 out of 252 places available.

The case has received a great deal of media attention and criticism including from men and former students who are now in well-paid positions in the business sector and are responsible for student recruitment. Politicians have also weighed in.

Despite the backlash, Dean of the Faculty of Economics at NTNU, Monica Rolfsen, defended the legitimacy of gender change, telling Khrono it was a “private matter”.

She confirmed to University World News that she stands by the university’s point system on the basis that gender-based admission is a powerful tool through which to level out gender imbalances at universities.

The university would wait until lectures started on 14 August to see if any adjustments to the admission regulations were needed, she told Universitetsavisa.

According to Rolfsen, there are usually only around 30% of women in total accepted during the five annual intakes in the masters programme but this year was the first to have a majority of women. She said the programme was attractive because it produced graduates who could take leadership roles in advanced technology positions.

The dean said the measures were in accordance with regulations set by the ministry which stipulate that where there is less than 30% of one gender in working life and less than 40% among students, it is permissible to allocate additional competitive points to the underrepresented gender.

Rolfsen told Universitetsavisa the Indøk programme had been “a male-dominated study since it was started”.

She added: “We have taken measures to increase interest in the study in many ways since it was started.” These include using money to recruit students and employing four study assistants to visit secondary schools to promote the course.

“These measures have in particular been directed towards women,” she said. While all the measures have had a limited effect, the use of extra points for gender was “a powerful instrument”, she said.

Ministry regulations

The ministry regulations aimed at improving gender balance in “certain studies and in the workforce” were introduced in 2018 and are intended to operate for a limited period only.

In terms of the regulations, for a university to qualify to use the extra points system, there must be a waiting list for admission to the course. The university is also required to prove that all other measures for redressing the gender imbalance had been tried out without success.

According to a report on university and college admissions submitted to the Ministry of Education and Science in December 2022, in 2021 men and women could be given extra competitive points for underrepresented gender in 123 different programmes. 10 of these were directed towards men and 113 towards women.

In 2022 this has been reduced to eight studies giving extra points for men in studies within veterinary sciences, nursing, childcare and psychology; and for women within bachelor studies in engineering, and integrated masters studies in technology and economics.

Statistics for the total joint admission to studies for 2023 in Norway show that 61.3% of higher education entrants are women and 38.7% are men.

For some of the professional studies there are large gender gaps. For example, in law it is 33.9% men; 66.1% women. In medicine it is 30.5% men 69.5% women. In psychology it is 24.1% men and 75.9% women. For dentists it is 18.5% men and 81.5% women; and for veterinary science it is 7.3% men and 92.7% women.

Follow-up in parliament in 2024

After several months of work, in 2022, a 14-member government committee produced recommendations in the form of a white paper (NOU 22:17), “New ways in [to higher education]: new model for admission to universities and university colleges” (in Norwegian), which is to be used as the basis for a discussion in parliament on addressing the gender gap in professional degrees.

The question now is whether the recent case of a sex ‘transfer’ in order to get admission to Indøk will influence that debate.

Former Indøk students Lars Lien Arnkile, Kjartan Krange and Edvard Syse argued in an article in Aftenposten on 29 July that points for gender have to be used carefully when it came to deciding admittance into higher education.

“Now we are on wild tracks,” they wrote.

Their views were picked up in an editorial in Aftenposten the next day, and several politicians indicated to various media outlets that they would address this issue when the discussions come up in parliament in 2024.

Student representatives have also called for caution in the application of gender points.

“The most important aspect for us is that the use of gender points must be thoroughly examined for each study so that it doesn’t violate students’ legal rights, said Oline Sæther, president of the National Union of Students in Norway.

“We are in favour of affirmative action in studies where there is documented significant gender imbalance and documented need for a better balance. However, we believe that quotas would be more precise … than the current system of gender points,” she said.

“Study programmes can apply to have one or two gender points. The threshold for having two gender points should be high. When gender points essentially reverse the gender balance in study programmes, a new assessment must be made regarding the number of gender points that should be awarded.

“By using quotas, we can avoid this issue. Quotas, as a form of affirmative action, will provide more control over the extent of impact each year,” Sæther said.