Higher Education Policy Institute, UK reported on the sector’s gender gap “problem”, calls for action to tackle male ‘underachievement’: Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills

Only two English universities have targets to increase recruitment of male students, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute report on the sector’s gender gap “problem”. The report, published on 12 May, cites Ucas UK figures showing that at the mid-January 2016 application deadline, 343,930 women and 249,790 men had applied to enter higher education – a difference of 94,140 that was “the highest on record”.

“Male underachievement is not only seen in the figures for entry but also in non-continuation (dropout) rates and degree performance statistics,” says the report, authored by Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, and Nicolas Robinson, who was a visiting researcher at the think-tank last year. It argues that “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”, noting that “while men under-perform overall, poor white men have the worst record of all”.

The report, titled Boys to Men: the Underachievement of Young Men in Higher Education – and How to Start Tackling It, does note that men still “outperform” women when it comes to entry to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, to science and engineering courses and to research degrees – and that male graduates earn higher incomes on average. And it also observes that “other developed countries have undergone a similar shift” in balance towards female undergraduates.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance 2015 report, which looked at 28 developed and developing nations including the UK, found that “women make up the majority of entrants into tertiary education in all countries except Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey”.

Ucas figures show that, on entry rates for 2015, young women were 9.2 per cent more likely than men to go to university. “If this differential growth carries on unchecked, then girls born this year will be 75 per cent more likely to go to university than their male peers,” says Mary Curnock Cook, the Ucas chief executive, in a foreword to the Hepi report.

Ms Curnock Cook argues that “the dominance of women in the school workforce” is a key factor in the student gender gap – but the report suggests that increasing the number of male teachers would have, at best, “limited impact”.

The report says that the most important factors in the gender gap are “differential educational attainment” in schools, “gender differences in the labour market” and “the upgrading of nursing and teaching to the status of graduate professions”.

It notes that the number of female students in the UK overtook the number of male students for the first time in the mid-1990s and since then the switch of nursing to a degree profession has accelerated the trend. “Removing Subjects Allied to Medicine and Education from the data reduces the gender disparity in entry to higher education to around one-eighth of its original level,” the report says.

The report’s recommendations include a “Take Our Sons to University Day”, more access spending on the recruitment of disadvantaged male students and “more institutions [to] consider setting themselves targets for male recruitment in future”. Based on analysis of access agreements by the Office for Fair Access for the report, it adds that only two English universities “have statistical outcomes targets on the recruitment of male students” that are not specifically related to teacher training.

The report also cites neuroscience research suggesting that female brains develop earlier to recommend that “some young men could benefit from not being rushed into full undergraduate study immediately on leaving school or college”; that “helping male students more should also mean altering pedagogy to take full account of perceived differences in the way men and women study and learn”; and that the advent of learning analytic offers a chance to find new ways to help “under-performing groups, including men”.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills said “Traditionally, there have been many barriers for girls and women to access educational opportunities. In advanced nations, these barriers have been largely overcome so whoever is ready to expend greater effort to study hard will be rewarded with better results.” He added that “our education systems are doing less well with motivating boys to do well in school, with similar ‘intelligence’ they systematically achieve poorer results, particularly if they come from disadvantaged home backgrounds. As a result, countries do not fully capitalize on their talent.”

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