Leader 1: Get on the ball to help boys now

February 25, 2005

Remarkably little attention has been paid to the growing underrepresentation of male students in UK higher education. The declining performance of boys has been a headline issue in schools for a number of years, and in the US some universities are sailing close to the wind with measures that amount to positive discrimination. Yet the response of their British counterparts when asked if they have any plans to redress the gender balance is cool to the point of dismissiveness. One reason may be that at degree level, men still take a higher proportion of firsts than women, and in most areas of science and (particularly) engineering, they continue to take the lion's share of places. Despite some narrowing of the gap in recent years, men also dominate the academic ranks - especially at senior levels.

High-profile campaigns to encourage female scientists are so fresh in the memory that it may seem ridiculous to be contemplating measures to help male students. There will never be a perfect 50-50 split, and universities have enough on their plate with the existing agenda for widening participation. However, the gender balance at undergraduate level is similar in the US and the UK; almost 56 per cent of this year's applicants are female. The Higher Education Funding Council for England raised the issue in its access report last month, noting that young women were 18 per cent more likely than men to go into higher education and much less likely to drop out once there.

Universities have not yet been told to find a way to take more male applicants, but they should not be surprised if eventually there is pressure to do so. As in so many areas of educational disadvantage, higher education comes too late in the cycle to be the prime mover: universities cannot stop 16-year-olds leaving school, let alone give boys more of an appetite for learning in their early years. But they could focus more on boys in their outreach activities and help to convince them that higher education is an achievable and sensible goal, especially in the modern labour market. Girls got that message partly because some of their traditional routes to employment - Jsuch as primary school teaching and, later, nursing - began to demand degrees. Boys, especially in the white working classes, have not had the same rude awakening, and higher education must do more to ensure that they do.

The alternative, whether in two, five or ten years' time, will be the kind of painful measures seen in schools, where reading lists are distorted to appeal more to boys, and footballers adorn revision guides. Better to take some constructive measures now.

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