Students told to use gender-neutral terms unless they want to lose marks

PinkNews logo on a pink background surrounded by illustrated line drawings of a rainbow, pride flag, unicorn and more.

Students at Hull University have been told to use gender-neutral terms in their essays – or face being marked down.

A course on religion at the university warned participants that using language which is not “gender-sensitive” would leave them open to being penalised on a case-by-case basis.

And lecturers in the university’s social science department have explicitly told students that using non-inclusive terms will have “an impact on their mark”.

The instructions were discovered by The Sunday Times through a Freedom of Information request to the university, whose alumni include politicians Louise Ellman, John Prescott, Rosie Winterton and Tom Watson, as well as singer Tracey Thorn.

A professor on a course about religious activism told students that “language is important and highly symbolic.

Students told to use gender-neutral terms unless they want to lose marks

“In your essay, I thus expect you to be aware of the powerful and symbolic nature of language and use gender-sensitive formulations.

“Failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark.”

A senior lecturer in religion at Hull supported this stance, saying: “Language is powerful and we place a high emphasis on gender-neutral language on our courses.

“Should any student use language which is not deemed gender neutral, they will be offered feedback as to why. Deduction of marks is taken on a case by case basis.”

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, condemned the move.

“This linguistic policing is used as a coercive tool to impose a conformist outlook.The alternative is to pay a penalty of being marked down,” he told The Sunday Times.

But Dr Lia Litosseliti, senior lecturer in linguistics at City, University of London, told the Guardian: “Language is a symbolic resource, and words are rarely neutral.

“Given the many possibilities for using language to define, trivialise or make people and groups invisible, it should come as no surprise that linguistic intervention as one way to help build more inclusive societies has a long history.

“It is easy to dismiss or ridicule such attempts (as is often done) as ‘policing’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’.

“It is harder to have a proper discussion about the genuine need to raise awareness of the role language can play in reinforcing as well as contesting gender inequalities.”

Cardiff Metropolitan University encourages students to use its “gender-neutral term” checklist, which includes alternative terms – for instance, ‘efficient’ instead ‘workmanlike’.

Bath University also advises students that it’s preferable to use neutral alternatives to ‘mankind,’ such as ‘humanity’ or ‘people.’

In January, top theological college Wycliffe Hall – an offshoot of Oxford University – called for the use of gender-neutral terms when referring to God, in order to tackle gender bias.

And as far back as 2015, the University of Tennessee tried to encourage the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

The university had asked tutors to let students choose which pronouns they wanted to be referred to with, but pulled the idea after a media backlash.