60,000 more young women than men will start university this year
This year, as the restriction on university recruitment was lifted, we saw a record number of students accepted to UK universities. More young people entering higher education is cause for celebration, but the headline figures mask some less auspicious truths.
Part-time study and participation among mature students is in steep decline, the gap between the number of students from the most and least advantaged backgrounds remains stubbornly high, and there is a growing gender gap, with 60,000 more women than men set to enter higher education this year.
The latest UCAS figures suggest that women are now 36 per cent more likely to apply to university than men; in the most disadvantaged areas they are 57 per cent more likely to do so.
A ComRes survey for the University and College Union (UCU) showed that young people’s perceptions of higher education vary widely by gender. Overall, young women aged 13-17 were 9 per cent more likely than young men to say that they wished to go on to higher education in the future, and young men were less likely to cite ‘getting a degree’ as an important goal.
So the current trend may be set to continue for some time. One of the factors which may be contributing to the growing divide is concern over cost. Analysis by the Independent Commission on Fees (p.14) showed that, when £9,000 tuition fees were introduced to higher education in 2012, male participation dropped more sharply than female participation.
The proportional drop was most acute amongst young men from the poorest neighbourhoods. Overall, young men surveyed by ComRes were 10 per cent more likely to say that they would pursue an apprenticeship after school.
This may be in part because the ‘earn-while-you-learn’ model offered by apprenticeships is more appealing to young men than taking on large university debts.
The conversion of maintenance grants into loans, which will load further debt onto university students, therefore threatens to exacerbate the downward trend in male higher education participation. UCU fully endorses the commission’s recommendation that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) should scrutinise the impact of changes to student funding.
As the cost of higher education rises, it also becomes more important that young people fully understand the pros and cons behind their different post-school options. In general, the ComRes survey found that boys have less of a clear idea about what they want to do after school or college.
Boys are less inclined than girls to seek out advice on their next steps and more likely to simply get advice from their family. They were less likely to have received information from a teacher or careers advisor, or to have used the internet to research their options.
Fewer young men said that they had attended a university open day or visited a university than young women. Almost all (95 per cent) of young people who had visited a university or attended an open day said they found it helpful.
Improved access to careers advice could help young men make better-informed choices and encourage more women to consider the vocational routes that are increasingly valued by employers.
Worryingly though, a quarter of parents in a recent YouGov survey said they were not aware of their child receiving any form of careers advice in school.
The National Careers Service needs a complete overhaul. We need to see greater investment in careers guidance so that all young people receive good quality, independent information, advice and guidance. Crucially, this must be delivered by trained careers professionals, and include face-to-face advice.
There is also more work to do in understanding how young men’s choices are motivated, and tackling the barriers they face. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA), charged with promoting access for those from the poorest backgrounds, should have a key role to play here.
There is currently no specific duty on universities to consider disadvantaged men as a target group when designing access agreements, but more pressure on institutions to focus support in this area would be helpful.
As well as reducing the gender divide, this might also go some way to addressing the abysmal figures we now have for part-time and mature students applying to university.
Angela Nartey is a policy officer at the University and College Union
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