Why disadvantaged young men are missing out on higher education

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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3 Responses to “Why disadvantaged young men are missing out on higher education”

  1. steroflex

    Angela, we have a young woman here who knocked up a staggering four As in A level and was offered places at Uni. Instead she proudly became a receptionist in a Doctor’s. Why go to Uni?
    The professions (the original point of University) are certainly not what they once were – the Church, the Law, the Medical Profession, Teachers, Heads, the vanishing Army…
    Going to what was until very recently a Tech is not going to guarantee future prosperity. People are beginning (slowly) to see that we live now in 2015 and things have changed radically.
    Ideally, a woman finds a lifelong mate, marries, has her children and her man supports her financially so she is free to do what she does best: being a Mummy. OK there are a tiny number of women who do not fit snugly and naturally into this stereotype. But not, to my surprise, many.
    Before you reach for the indignant clichés, please think if it is not true. It is only since the birth of my grandchild (I am married to a nurse) to a fully qualified and experienced vet that I can say this. Yup, it surprised me a lot too.

  2. ManchesterAdviser

    I agree that most people, both men and women, in an ideal world do want to find a partner, settle down and raise a family; however to say most women want to be supported financially so they can be a Mummy is not being being fair to women. A “career” now does come in all shapes and sizes and is more about managing life ambitions with career satisfaction, which may include raising a family at some time or choosing not to go to university. For many,pursuing further study at any time in life can be rewarding and lead to further opportunities and the metropilitan univeresities provide excellent opportunities to those who wish to go. One must remember though, no amount of further or higher education will guarantee a job unless an individual applies the learning with their own character, skills and preferences to the changing labour market.

  3. Mike Stallard

    I am male – and I assume you are too.
    It is only very recently, at the end of my life that I have come to see the error of my schoolmasterly ways. I would now (very reluctantly and as the father of two grown up girls) say that almost every woman puts her children and her grandchildren before a career and that they are all after what my Aunt Joy used to call “the main chance”.
    I do not say this easily.

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