Male underachievement ‘a national scandal’

Report on university gender gap says male students need more support

By Hannah Vickers

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has released a new report looking into the gender gap at university, saying that more needs to be done to support male students.

The report, called ‘Boys to Men, the underachievement of young men in higher education and how to start tackling it’ looks into why young men – particularly white, working class males – are underachieving in higher education.

Higher education is a consistent predictor of greater civic participation, wellbeing and life expectancy. So the big gender gap should concern everyone – Nick Robinson, Co-author of ‘Boys to Men’ report

The report, which contains new data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Office for Fair Access (Offa), found that men are less likely to go to university than women, have higher odds of dropping out, and that those who stay the course are less likely to get top degrees. Co-author Nick Robinson warned that this could have serious consequences for the future. “Higher education is a consistent predictor of greater civic participation, wellbeing and life expectancy. So the big gender gap should concern everyone,” he said.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and co-author of the report, said that he recognises that it’s women who usually lose out in the gender gap, conceding: “Of course women face substantial challenges too.” He cites ‘lad culture’ on campus which “can make life uncomfortable for female students,” the disparity between male and female salaries, and the fact that women don’t have the same promotion opportunities as men, but says that “policymaking is not a zero-sum game in which you have to choose between caring for one group or the other.”

‘Boys to Men’ reports that despite the clear gender gap in higher education achievement – over 80% of institutions have more men than women – not enough is  being done to tackle the problem. While 58 out of 183 institutions have identified males as a priority group, only two institutions have committed to setting themselves a target to recruit more male students.

The report found that the gender disparity was starker in groups from lower income backgrounds, with young white men from working-class households performing worse than their female counterparts, and criticised the Government for not having an organised, joined-up solution.

Photo: Jeremy Jenum/Flickr

So, what should be done to deal with this inequality? The report offers several recommendations to increase male participation, including spending more on outreach programmes for young men, bringing in male role models and introducing a ‘Take Our Sons To University Day’. It also suggests that more institutions set themselves clear goals for recruiting male students and that schools look into changing teaching styles to reflect any differences between how boys and girls learn.

University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell praised the research saying that the evidence that young men are not achieving their potential needs to be addressed.

‘The authors are right to focus on the need for universities to adjust the way they teach for students who might learn in different ways. Alliance universities’ experience suggests that this is most likely to happen where there is strong institutional commitment to ensure that all students reach their potential,” she added.

But NUS Vice-President Sorana Vieru dismissed the report as oversimplifying and turning a complex issue into a ‘battle of the sexes’.

Over her working life – even taking into account subject choice, time off for childbirth and other variable factors – a woman can still expect to earn 5% less than the man sat in the chair next to her in the lecture theatre – Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice-President

Writing for Higher Education blog Wonkhe she argued that the report had confused underachievement and participation and noted that men with the same UCAS points and the same degree will end up getting paid more than women.

“Over her working life – even taking into account subject choice, time off for childbirth and other variable factors – a woman can still expect to earn 5% less than the man sat in the chair next to her in the lecture theatre,” Viero wrote.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Ellis/Flickr