on why a serious
gender gap is appearing in higher education
May 18, 2004
Not so long ago there was an equal balance of men and women in Professor Phillip Brown's sociology classes. Now there isn't. In a recent lecture there were just five men in the group of 50 he was teaching. And it's not just sociology. Throughout the UK higher education system, women are the dominant number in many subjects while men are disappearing like flies before a thunderstorm.
Driven by success at school, which has seen them outstrip boys at GCSE and A-level, girls are going into higher education in ever increasing numbers. Over the last decade more than 70% of the increase in full-time undergraduates in the UK has been female.
It's not just school leavers who are skewing the balance. Women in their 20s and 30s are increasingly taking up opportunities as mature students in much greater numbers than men. In the academic year 2002-3, 56% of first-degree graduates and 58% of first-year undergraduates were women.
Brown, research professor in the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, says: "What is happening to the men? Where are they going? What are they doing? Are they not seeing education as appropriate for them, or are they saying there are alternatives to education in the labour market?"
In the 2002-3 academic year, the proportional increase in women accepted for higher education was double that of men, according to statistics compiled by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). Combined with a small decrease in the numbers of male accepted applicants from England and Wales -in itself worrying - it made the gender gap even more pronounced.
Detailed figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) portray a startling situation. Ten years ago there were 413,400 female full-time undergraduates compared with 415,380 men. The following year, the women edged ahead. In the last academic year there were 517,160 female full-time students compared with 452,230 male. There had been an increase in women full-timers of more than 103,760 compared with an increase of only 36,850 men. The part-time disparity is the most striking figure of all, with nearly two-thirds of students female.
Brown is co-author of a controversial book out next month which argues that the need for graduate workers is not as great as the government predicts and that too many employers are asking for graduate skills they don't need. He believes middle-class boys are as interested in going to university as they ever were, but that working-class boys continue to be as uninterested as ever. The shift is occurring as a result of working-class girls and women seeking higher qualifications, because more jobs need credentials, thereby increasing the gender gap.
He is not alone in this view. Diane Reay, professor of sociology of education at the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University, argues that the market for middle-class higher education students is now saturated. Even middle-class men and women who 10 years ago would not have considered themselves academic enough are going to university, which leaves any rise in university entry to come from the working classes. This is where the different approaches to education between the sexes, shown by her research, come into play. How girls and women work and respond to opportunities is the key to the rising gender gap in the higher education student body.
"Right from the start of school, girls assume different attitudes to learning," says Reay. "They have a willingness to play by the rules of the educational game and an engagement with learning. Even if they find things tedious, they get on with it, rather than get out.
"As we move from an elite to a mass higher education system, working-class girls are buying into it, while working-class boys are opting out. Nothing is going to pull these young working-class men in. They are disenchanted with education before the sixth form."
The rise and rise of women in higher education is not restricted to the UK. In the US there are two million more women than men in college and the National Centre for Educational Statistics estimates that within five years 61% of those entering college will be female. There have been reports that some ivy league universities are managing their admissions to avoid overloading their student bodies with women - much as the 11-plus had a higher pass mark for girls, or the grammar schools would have been swamped with them. At the University of Saskatchewan in Canada only 11 of the 71 students due to graduate in veterinary science in 2007 will be men. Sixty per cent of University of Ottawa students are women and they are the majority in nine out of 10 faculties. During the 1990s women accounted for 100% of enrolment growth at German universities and more than 60% in France and Australia. In Trinidad, unofficial figures suggest up to 75% of the student body is female.
Amid a panic about what is happening to boys in society, and particularly working-class boys, schools throughout the UK are trying to adopt boy- friendly strategies in the classroom to encourage boys in their work.
The feminisation of the curriculum and the teaching force have both been blamed for the problems boys seem to have in getting results as good as girls', although boys' results have been improving too - just not as dramatically. Teaching styles have been changed to the more fast-moving approaches typically preferred by boys, girls have been seated beside boys as role models, and single gender classes in mixed schools have been experimented with.
But whatever change is made to help boys, girls are likely to adapt to it and make the most use of it. Research carried out by Madeleine Arnot, reader in sociology of education at the University of Cambridge, shows that girls appear to be more flexible learners, equipped to cope with different modes of teaching and assessment. They have also been more likely over the years to take up the opportunities offered by the expansion of education. Professional women made more use of the 1960s expansion of universities and of the Open University. And, crucially, girls moved into non-traditional subjects, such as science, after the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988, which has given a broader base of qualifications from which to apply for higher education courses.
Boys, by comparison, have not on the whole broadened into areas where girls dominate, such as the arts and languages. The outcome is that girls may have a wider choice of subjects to study in higher education than boys. Arnot believes the working-class girls now attracted into universities may in the past have gone into further education to do a vocational course, such as childcare or beauty therapy. Working-class boys appear not to choose to upgrade in this way.
Exam results play their part, particularly in access to popular courses at prestigious universities. At GCSE girls get a better pass rate in every subject but sciences. Girls took the pass-rate lead at A-level four years ago and they get more A grades at A-level. Now they outnumber boys at university, they have almost caught up with them in the number of first-class degrees awarded. They are well ahead, if you count firsts with upper seconds. Males only dominate in numbers at postgraduate level.
But does it matter if there are proportionately fewer boys at university, particularly in the light of Brown's thesis that already 40% of graduates are in jobs that don't require graduate skills? Arnot is concerned that we may not be educating the people we need for the economy. Although girls do well at school in previously male-dominated subjects, such as science and maths, proportionately fewer take them through to degree level. The gender gap in subject choice re-emerges at A-level. The closure of university physics and chemistry departments in recent years and the rapid expansion of media studies and psychology departments is indicative of the difficulties we could face.
In the year 2002-3, for example, Ucas figures show that the seemingly inexorable decline in the numbers studying maths continued with a 9% fall in accepted applicants in England. Accepted applicants for physical sciences, popular with boys, were down 0.4% while accepted applicants for biological sciences, popular with girls, were up by 5.7%. Law and psychology had the largest share of applications, with female applications dominant in both. There were four female applications in psychology to every one male application.
Reay is concerned that some girls going to universities lower down in the pecking order may find it difficult to get graduate-level jobs. "Boys are taking a risk by not going to university because they might not reach their potential and could end up in dead-end jobs. But girls risk dead-end jobs, debts and disillusionment."
We could follow the logic of Brown's argument and encourage employers to ask for graduate skills only when they really need them. That would mean fewer people would need to go to university to get credentials for jobs. But whether we would want to see higher education recruitment fall is entirely another matter. University is supposed to be more than a finishing school for the job market - for both sexes. We have just closed a century in which untold numbers of girls and women missed out on reaching their potential. Will the 21st-century gender gap see the same happening to men?
Number of full-time students at first degree level by gender
Academic year, Female, Male
2002-3, 517,160, 452,230
2001-2, 494,650, 434,355
2000-1, 481,340, 425,025
1999-0, 476,080, 427,410
1998-9, 472,645, 432,425
1997-8, 462,725, 433,600
1996-7, 446,350, 428,305
1995-6, 430,320, 424,900
1994-5, 413,400, 415,380
· Source: Hesa
The Mismanagement of Talent - Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy,
by Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh (OUP, £16.99)