Too cool for school and it's downhill from there

February 25, 2005

Women outnumber men on campus on both sides of the Atlantic. Is such an imbalance a threat to diversity and, if so, is affirmative action the answer?

UK academics do not lose sleep over a gender gap, but working-class boys are a concern, says Michael North

It has been the summer news story of the past few years: girls outperform boys at A level. The result: the percentage of male undergraduates has fallen. Statistics for the 2002-03 academic year show that 58 per cent of first-year students were female. In 2004, 7 per cent more women than men were accepted on undergraduate courses, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. In the US, some colleges adopt an approach that borders on positive discrimination. Do UK universities feel they should do the same?

A straw poll of universities suggests the answer is no. A Birmingham University spokeswoman refers to the institution's 56 per cent of female undergraduates to 44 per cent men as a "minor imbalance" that the university "would not take any steps to redress through incentives or any other means". She adds: "The fact that we admit the most able students regardless of gender or background is of paramount importance to us."

Angela Milln, Bristol University's director of recruitment, access and admissions, comments: "We are keeping an eye on it. There has always been an issue in terms of gender balance in certain subjects, such as engineering, but we are not rushing into a huge 'let's-get-men-into-universities' kind of thing."

Mike Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of the group Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, says: "It is not something a lot of people in higher education are losing sleep over. I am not convinced that having gender balance on every course is essential."

Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, stresses:

"We don't run affirmative action programmes. We try to run equal opportunity programmes."

Baroness Tessa Blackstone, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, sums up the focus for UK vice-chancellors: "The priority is to make it possible for first-generation students whose parents did not have access to higher education to go to university. This applies to boys and girls."

Blackstone doubts whether the gender gap is something to worry about. She says that the latest Higher Education Funding Council for England research - which shows that by 2000 women were 18 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men, a 12 per cent increase since 1994 - is only about young entrants. She points out: "A substantial number coming in are not young. I would like to know the proportions (of men and women) between the ages of 25 and 30 to see whether there is evidence of men catching up.

I suspect this might be happening, particularly among ethnic minority men."

Quite apart from universities' reluctance to positively discriminate to increase male participation - potentially a legal minefield - the many reasons why female undergraduate numbers have risen so sharply could be seen as positive. Girls' career aspirations have changed and are reflected in better results at school, while some professions with a high participation among women previously excluded from higher education, such as nursing, now require a degree.

The problem regarding male participation, says Phillip Brown, professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, is more specific. "I would see the widening gender gap more in class than gender terms. The biggest problem that universities are confronting is getting working-class boys into higher education. Expansion has been taken up by people with reasonably prosperous backgrounds, and middle-class men are still doing much better than working-class women." Brown adds: "In the labour market, male earnings across all subjects are still higher than women's."

Research by Diane Reay, professor of sociology at the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University, shows the many reasons why working-class boys fail to progress to higher education - she even had difficulty getting this section of society to participate in a study of 150 pupils.

"Working-class girls are more likely to talk about the longer term and future prospects. They see a need for a degree to have a reasonable occupation. Working-class young men have not made that leap of understanding."

Reay says the strength of working-class male peer groups - which are typically reluctant to show enthusiasm about learning - overpowers family influence. "All families across the social classes want their children to do well. Working-class families have no idea how to ensure their children will be educationally successful. They don't have the resources to enact their aspirations for their children. These parents do not have enough power in contrast with the white male peer-group culture."

Lack of enthusiasm for learning among working-class boys is familiar to Gary Davies, summer school director for AimHigher in London, part of the national programme to raise aspirations among low-participation groups by giving pupils a taste of higher education.

Davies says: "Those who turn up are not necessarily the target group. The gender gap on the summer schools is worse than for higher education: it's 65 per cent girls to 35 per cent boys. Generally it's just down to peer pressure (among working-class boys) and what is seen as cool."

Davies says the gender imbalance may be remedied by running the programmes for younger pupils than year 10s and 11s (14 to 16-year-olds).

Earlier educational intervention for boys may also correct their inferior performance to girls in school exams, according to Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University. "Girls in primary school are almost invariably ahead in terms of verbal abilities and adjust better to the early years of school development - to learning to read and to add. The way to tackle it is to try to get boys better prepared to learn to read at the ages of three to six, to give them a better platform before schooling."

Reay adds: "Whenever I have interviewed young men, they always like competition and games and oral activities. They are not focused on text and writing. I think it's also about a broad cultural response to education. My own son loved books, but when he got to school he thought it was more important to kick a ball than read Lord of the Rings. At seven he started hiding his literacy competency."

There are a number of projects that aim to boost boys' literacy at school, including football-related programmes such as Playing for Success. One issue that emerges, though, is whether these improve literacy at the expense of entrenching stereotypes about what interests boys. Reay talks about the need to "instil positive learning identities" from an early age to combat gendered cultural pressures. She says that as boys progress through school, "if they have a negative view of learning - even if they are concerned about opportunities in the labour market - they won't have the learning dispositions to cope with a degree, or they will go to university and drop out".

The view that schools are mainly responsible for widening participation is widely held among vice-chancellors. Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, sums this up. "While universities have a part to play, it is schools that have the responsibility to deliver young people with the qualifications, confidence and ambition to see a university-level education as a real option."

Nevertheless, interest in the gender gap is being shown at the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. It has commissioned a gender study this year, but there are no plans by Hefce or the Office for Fair Access to implement such a study.

Some researchers, however, question whether there is a gender problem.

Penny Jane Burke, lecturer in higher education at the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, says: "The 'crisis' of men's participation in higher education is being constructed while perhaps overexaggerating the situation, with images of 'women taking over' the university. Women are far from taking over and universities continue to be male-centred institutions. For example, research shows that many new female entrants to higher education are channelled into less prestigious institutions."

Burke's colleague Louise Morley, professor of education at the IoE, also questions the depth of the crisis: "(The gender gap) was not given policy attention when it was the other way round."

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