Oxbridge exaggerates the gender gap

October 26, 1995

Gillian Sutherland's observations on the alleged "gender deficit" (THES, October 13) contain many justified criticisms of assessment practices in universities. However, the premise that "girls outperform boys at school but fail to do as well at university" is not as self-evident as the view from Newnham College might suggest.

The under-representation of women at first-class level in the national figures for many subjects is directly related to the Oxbridge "gender deficit". Oxbridge accounts for a substantial proportion of the output of graduates in many subjects and an even bigger proportion of the output of firsts. My own analysis of degree results by gender in geography suggests that relatively few universities demonstrate a "gender deficit" at first-class level, but many show a significant over-representation of men in the third and pass categories.

Gillian Sutherland is correct to suggest careful monitoring of degree results by gender. Such monitoring will probably confirm that gender differences at Oxbridge are different in magnitude and character from those evident in the rest of the system. We should be aware of and try to understand the reasons for these differences, but the media pre-occupation with Oxbridge is, I suspect, creating a false impression of endemic under-achievement by women in United Kingdom universities.

Keith Chapman Head of department Department of geography University of Aberdeen

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