After centuries of inequality in UK higher education benefiting men, there has been a reversal over the past three decades. A lower proportion of entrants to UK higher education institutions are male than ever before and they make up less than one-half of the total. Other developed countries have undergone a similar shift.
- Male underachievement is not seen only in the figures for entry but also in non-continuation (drop-out) rates and degree performance statistics.
- Men still outperform women in some of the most prestigious areas – such as entry to the highest-tari institutions, to Science and Engineering courses and to research degrees. Moreover, on some indicators, men have better employment outcomes. Six months after leaving higher education, women are more likely to be in work but men are more likely to be in professional occupations. Among those with jobs, men also earn higher incomes on average.
- But the overall picture suggests young men are not performing as well in higher education as young women. This is storing up problems for the future. Recognising the challenge does not excuse the past under-representation of women. Nor does it excuse the challenges posed today to female students by ‘lad culture’ and to female sta by obstacle-laden promotion routes.
- Addressing the underachievement of young men is not a distraction from other inequalities. The weak performance of people from disadvantaged backgrounds or certain ethnic groups can only be fully addressed by dealing with the differences in male and female achievement. For example, while men underperform overall, poor white men have the worst record of all. So tackling the underperformance of young men is essential if we are to tackle other dismal higher education performance indicators.
- The greater appetite for higher education among women is rational in financial terms because the financial returns from higher education have been larger for women than for men. But this gap is not due to female graduates earning more: in fact, they earn less on average. It is due to non-graduate women typically earning significantly less than non-graduate men.
- Received wisdom identifies the transition from O-Levels to GCSEs as a key factor in the improved educational performance of young women. The evidence is not compelling. Women had nearly caught men up for entry to higher education before the first GCSE students entered higher education in 1990. At best, GCSEs were part of a trend that started long before and continued long afterwards.
- Skilled careers traditionally chosen by women, such as nursing and teaching, did not demand full degrees in the past. When this changed, the number of women in higher education increased dramatically. Discounting students taking Subjects Allied to Medicine and Education reduces the disparity in the total number of male and female higher education students from around 281,000 to just 34,000.
- There is debate among academics and policymakers over whether and how to address the underperformance of young men. Arguably, this is evident in the current Government. The Department for Education says it no longer focuses specifically on boys’ underachievement. Meanwhile, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has instructed higher education institutions to focus on the under-representation of young men, particularly white working-class boys.
- Even among those who accept there is a problem, there has been a shortage of ideas for tackling it. Moreover, given the centuries of male dominance in higher education, there are few precedents from which to learn.
- It is often said more male school teachers would help raise the achievement of boys by providing positive role models. Yet the evidence suggests this has limited, if any, potential in tackling the educational achievement gap between males and females. Other policies could do more to help young men enter and succeed in higher education.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Boys to men: the underachievement of young men in higher education, and how to start tackling it