Boys more likely to apply to elite institutions, research finds

Study also shows that the most advantaged teenagers are more likely to apply to Oxford or Cambridge than the least advantaged

July 20, 2020
Girls and boys signs

Teenage boys are much more likely to say they plan to attend an elite institution than girls, new research has shown.

A study carried out by researchers at UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities found that teenage boys are nine percentage points more likely to plan to apply to the University of Oxford or University of Cambridge than girls, even if they have the same characteristics and attainment and attend the same school.

The researchers used data on 5,000 15- and 16-year olds, collected as part of the government-sponsored Programme for International Student Assessment, linked with the National Pupil Database in England, to compare gender and socio-economic background with ambition, drive and attainment.

As part of the survey, pupils were asked whether they planned to attend university and, if so, to name three institutions to which they planned on applying. Those who put down Oxford or Cambridge were considered ambitious.

The researchers also found that when the definition of “ambitious” was expanded to include plans to apply to any of the 24 research-intensive Russell Group institutions, boys were still more likely to indicate they would apply to an elite institution than girls, even after controlling for prior academic attainment and school attended.  

The researchers also found that pupils from the most advantaged backgrounds were 5.5 percentage points more likely to plan to apply to Oxbridge than their peers from the least advantaged backgrounds.

However, this difference is almost entirely explained by differences in prior academic ability. Once prior attainment has been controlled for, that difference falls to 1.8 percentage points, which is “no longer statistically significant at conventional thresholds”, according to the researchers.

The study also showed that advantaged pupils exhibit higher levels of drive − how much pupils push themselves to the maximum of their abilities to reach their goals − than their disadvantaged peers and that young people who are “driven and ambitious” outperform their peers by 0.36 standard deviations, or half a GCSE grade.

Teenagers who plan to apply to Oxford or Cambridge achieve GCSE grades 0.65 standard deviations higher than those who plan to go to university but did not name a precise institution in the survey, the research found. Ambitious students had GCSE grades that were 1.21 standard deviations higher than those who do not plan to go to university at all.

“Interestingly, there is no clear difference between boys and girls in their academic drive, despite the observed differences in ambition,” the authors write.

The study also found that first- and second-generation immigrants were 14 percentage points were more likely to have ambitious academic plans than young people of British heritage.

Nikki Shure, a lecture in economics at the UCL Institute of Education and co-author of the research, said “previous studies show that women are less likely to compete, even when they might perform better than men”.

“This research raises questions about why high-attaining girls are uncomfortable making or expressing ambitious university plans,” she said. “There is more work to be done than just encouraging them to be more ambitious.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Surely, what needs to be done is to follow through and see which universities students actually attend in the future. The macho and gung-ho expressions of the boys may not translate to successful admission later.