Women may have leapt a gender gap but there is still a hill to climb

Pictures of smiling girls clutching A grades belie the fact that they are still unrepresented in elite institutions, claims Miriam David

August 28, 2008

Jubilation and joy on the faces of young women receiving their A-level results seems to typify the middle Thursday of August nowadays. Commenting on this exuberance, one journalist said that if it were examined they would all get an A. Although the majority of the photos on the BBC website are of girls, the corporation does not give a gender breakdown and journalists tend to ignore the gender dimension to the improving A-level scores.

Given that almost 26 per cent of students received at least one A grade, with an overall pass rate of more than 97 per cent, the focus is on declining standards rather than on improvements in educational outcomes, especially for young women. Regional and national differences in the scores, linked to socio-economic and school backgrounds and subject variations, are of major concern. The Schools Minister was cautiously optimistic about subject and regional improvement rates for overall A-level passes.

The proposed A* system, which is being tested, was also raised as a way to help admissions tutors at Oxbridge select the best candidates. But one Cambridge admissions tutor felt that this would help students from independent schools who tended to be better tutored. All universities and higher education institutions have the task of opening up opportunities to disadvantaged or working-class students from state schools as part of the Government's widening-participation strategy. But this strategy is without regard to gender.

Either there has been a lack of collective memory about the historical patterns of class and gender in relation to higher education or there have been rapid generational transformations in the 21st century.

More than a decade ago, Madeleine Arnot, Gaby Weiner and I published Closing the Gender Gap: Postwar Education and Social Change. We were very clear that the gender gap in relation to A levels, complex though it was, meant that girls did less well than boys, although the gap was closing. There were fewer places, especially at the elite universities, for women than men. As June Purvis pointed out in Times Higher Education ("The battles of 1918 go on", 7 August), people forget that it was only 60 years ago that "the University of Cambridge awarded women degrees on the same terms as men". She could also have added that it was not until 25 to 30 years ago that the male colleges at Oxbridge began to go coeducational. The few female colleges resisted coeducation on the grounds of women's rights for a decade longer. It is only in the last generation that there have been almost equal numbers of men and women at Oxbridge.

Class, disadvantage and gender are clearly intertwined. The struggle for women to be treated on equal terms with men in universities remains a key challenge. Although the gender gap in participation in higher education has been reversed over the past decade, where men and women go and what they study is not equal. Purvis says that women now make up the overall majority of the undergraduate student population but they are concentrated in the less-prestigious, post-1992 universities that focus more on teaching than research.

Interestingly, the lead article in the same issue of this magazine exemplifies the challenges of equity and gender in higher education. "Whose hand runs the show?" is about the personal and political tussles of two men, whose full-page photos appear, and their roles in the Higher Education Academy. It emphasises the part played by the Government, through the Higher Education Funding Council for England, in mediating this struggle about research and evaluation of teaching and learning.

It is well known within higher education that the HEA, concerned as it is with teaching and learning rather than research, is more about the new or post-1992 universities than the elite Russell Group or pre-1992 universities. Indeed, the post of director of research and evaluation is not about research assessment exercise-type research but research into practice or teaching and learning. There are some excellent new ways of thinking about and researching teaching and learning. In particular about how this can engage diverse, different and disadvantaged students, as a recent study by Chris Hockings of the University of Wolverhampton, as part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, demonstrates clearly.

This is an area in which women and feminists have been particularly strong in spite of the fact that the HEA does not attend to the challenging issues of how to develop critical, inclusive and new pedagogies, appropriate for the 21st century. The HEA and Hefce are locked into a time warp with disputes over male leadership that do not touch the lives of most students in higher education today.

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