For the past 20 years, practitioners across the UK have dedicated their research and practice to the issue of educational inequality. Throughout, NUS and students’ unions have been loud champions of access and widening participation. Whether it’s been working in partnership with institutional widening participation teams, leading the way on tackling the black attainment gap or teaming up with the Office for Fair Access, student officers are always close by when education change is happening.
Underpinning this have been rigorous evidence-based sector interventions that can only come from years at the coal face of education practice, be it the Higher Education Academy’s What Works? research, OFFA’s National Strategy for Access and Student Success, or HEFCE’s thorough 2015 report on differential attainment. It is a pity that little of this tested research finds its way into Boys to Men – a paper that showcases policy-based evidence making at its finest.
In the foreword, Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS, states that understanding the challenges of the complex issue of boys’ underachievement in education requires expertise in a vast range of subjects. I don’t disagree. But unfortunately, we are instead treated to a whistle-stop tour of the issue that is confused about whether it’s dealing with male underachievement or participation.
The latter is simply understood. UCU’s December 2014 report on young people’s perceptions of post-18 education and training options sounded similarly concerned klaxons about male progression to university, as their own data showed 65% of young men wanted to progress into HE, compared to 74% of women. Yet, the answer to this was contained within the very same paper. At a time of a rapidly declining graduate premium, the same research found that 46% of young men said they were interested in an apprenticeship following their schooling, compared to just 36% of young women. Given the same report quite rightly calls for a parity of esteem between vocational and academic pathways post-18, it’s incumbent upon academics and policy makers to consider young people’s progression in the whole, and not isolate out the university degree.
Still, the HEPI report debunks its own premise within the executive summary, highlighting that if we were to remove numbers for HE students undertaking Education and Subjects Allied to Medicine, the participation gap between men and women drops to just 34,000. Perhaps then, the evidence should lead us towards investigating why young men are put off from careers as teachers and nurses, rather than attempting to construct disparity within specific disciplines as a universally gendered issue.
But what of men’s underachievement? Again, the report answers its own concerns. Degree classification does not correlate with ongoing opportunity, as the report quotes on page 33, “Despite having the same UCAS entry tariff points, attending the same type of institution and studying the same subject, men are commanding higher salaries than women”. This chimes with earlier HEPI research. Their analysis of the 2010 White Paper stated that women comprise under 40% of the global research student population, and that over her working life – even taking into account subject choice, time off for childbirth and other variable factors – a woman can still expect to earn 5% less than the man sat in the chair next to her in the lecture theatre.
Invisible throughout the report is the issue of class, undoubtedly the biggest determinant of young people’s ability to survive and thrive within education. A generous analysis says this is all a misunderstanding of how privilege and oppression functions in higher education, a simplification of the widening participation agenda, and a poor use of statistics. Yet the use of some truly worrying expert opinions calls this into question.
On page 36, unnamed in the PDF footnote link, we are directed to the site of Mike Buchanan, the leader of the anti-feminist Justice for Men and Boys (and the Women Who Love Them) party. The same Mike Buchanan stated in his party’s 2015 manifesto that our current rape laws are, “nothing less than a charter for malicious women to make false sexual offence allegations, thereby ruining innocent men’s lives”. Why make use of such a disreputable source, when so many sector experts are writing on similar subjects? You’ll have to ask the report’s authors.
Ultimately, over-focusing on male underachievement turns a complex and nuanced issue into a battle of the sexes, particularly when women teachers are given as the reason that young men don’t do as well as young women in school, with no evidence whatsoever to underpin this. This misunderstanding of young working class men’s societal disadvantage does a disservice to them and disservice to good HE policymaking.
Nick Hillman’s argument for addressing male underachievement can be read here.
This article has been amended at 3.20pm, May 12th – the original version of this article was based on an advanced copy of the HEPI report which contained different footnote references to the final published version.