Male students are now the weaker sex, says Hepi study

June 11, 2009

Report calls for fresh mindset as women begin to dominate the academy, writes Melanie Newman

Female students are no longer the disadvantaged sex in higher education, a report suggests.

A study for the Higher Education Policy Institute, published this week, says the participation rate of women aged 18 to 30 was 49.2 per cent in 2007-08, compared with 37.8 per cent of similar aged men.

Female students now outnumber males across all types of institution - despite claims that they dominate only "lower-status" universities - and are more likely to achieve first or upper-second degrees, the study says.

The report, Male and Female Participation and Progression in Higher Education, says that to tackle male underachievement the sector must change "a mindset that continues to see males as advantaged and females as disadvantaged".

"It is not good enough, for example, for the Quality Assurance Agency to criticise foundation degrees on the grounds that 'despite the providers' enthusiasm for widening participation ... many programmes continue to mainly attract men aged 18 to 24 with traditional-entry qualifications who study full-time'," it says.

This suggests that action to attract males is "somehow unacceptable", the report adds. "On the contrary, any actions that help to rebalance the poor performance of males (should) be encouraged."

But Carole Leathwood, professor of education at London Metropolitan University, said the report manifested the "moral panic" that has dogged female educational achievement in recent years.

"The language and arguments made are evocative of a familiar and unhelpful 'sex war' mentality that has been around for a decade or more - indeed, as soon as girls and women were seen to be 'overtaking' men educationally," she said.

"The lack of an equivalent panic about men's domination of higher education for the previous eight centuries says it all."

Hepi's report appears to debunk the idea that women tend to dominate less prestigious institutions by showing that in all types of university, women make up at least half of undergraduate numbers.

However, Professor Leathwood's analysis of the proportion of UK-domiciled female undergraduate students in the top and bottom ten institutions featured in The Times Good University Guide 2008 shows that women constituted a far higher proportion of the student body in lower-ranking universities. There they accounted for 62.5 per cent of numbers: in the top institutions, the figure was 50.6 per cent.

"Given that women tend to have better entry qualifications than men, we would perhaps expect the highest proportion of women to be in the higher-status institutions," she said.

"Of course, we should be concerned about low participation rates for all groups who are under-represented in higher education, but, as the report acknowledges, it is social class that is the main predictor of participation ... working-class men and women are seriously under-represented in the sector."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

More on this story at our website http://tinyurl.com/kleq56.

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