Women: long the majority in UK HE and FE

May 24, 2018

I read with interest your feature on the ever-increasing number of women in higher education worldwide (“Why is Martha doing better than Arthur?”, 10 May), but it missed an important point.

At least in England and Wales, the number of women who go on to further and higher education has always been higher than the number of men, and in the same ratio as we find today. The only thing that has changed is the destination of these women, who now go on to undergraduate university education where once they would have been diverted into further education, including teacher training.

In 1971-72, for example, when 20,030 boys who left school in that year went on to university, just 11,430 girls did the same. However, 15,000 girls and just 4,460 boys went on to teacher training, while fully 41,960 girls and 30,660 boys went into some other form of further education, making a total of 55,150 boys but 68,390 girls in some form of further or higher education, and a ratio of 55 girls to every 45 boys.

What is even more remarkable, however, is that this same pattern can be observed as long ago as 1910-11. In that year, when only 710 boys and just 360 girls who left secondary schools on the grant-maintained list in that year (excluding public elementary schools) went to university, fully 5,350 girls and 2,560 boys went on to some form of further education, with the overwhelming majority of these girls (3,720) entering teacher training: 8,980 school-leavers in total, of whom 64 per cent were female and 36 per cent male.

In the 21st century – and in fact since the mid-1990s in England and Wales – undergraduate university education has become the functional equivalent of what further education and teacher training were for the vast majority of school-leavers in the past, boys as well as girls. It is now perhaps only postgraduate education that counts as the equivalent of what going to university as an undergraduate was for most of the 20th century.

Kenneth Smith
Reader in criminology and sociology
Bucks New University

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