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Male underachievement debate risks a battle of the sexes

NUS Vice-President (Higher Education), Sorana Vieru argues that concerns about male underachievement are overhyped, make erroneous use of figures, and fail to account for class and non-university opportunities.
This article is more than 7 years old

Sorana is Vice President Higher Education at the National Union of Students.

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. 

10 responses to “Male underachievement debate risks a battle of the sexes

  1. There is an inaccuracy in your account. You say that on page 36 the report refers to an “un-named academic”, with a footnote referring the reader to a “disreputable source” by the name of Mike Buchanan. This is incorrect. The reference to the “un named academic” (footnote 61) is to Joanna Williams, who is at the University of Kent.

    Mike Buchanan is not identified at all in the report, but footnote 60 does list three sources – one of them being Justice for Men etc – in connection with the statement that “groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence has been ignored”.

    I hope that you will correct this error as soon as possible.

    1. The error was in the copy of the report I was sent so referred to the same footnote numbers, which were then amended in the published version today.

  2. The conclusion of this article, that ‘women teachers are given as the reason that young men don’t do as well as young women in school’ is also not quite true. The report hesitates to make such representations.

    The hedged statements on page 39 – ‘It is often said boys, in particular would benefit….. A more even balance could conceivably help reflect wider society’

    Are counteracted on page 40 – ‘pupils of both genders taught by women were more likely to have positive attitudes about school.’

    And page 41 – ”it seems more male teachers could only have, at best, a limited impact on the proportion of new higher education students who are male.’

  3. Footnore 62 does indeed refer to the DfE document. Footnote 62 refers not to the skewed priorities claim, but refers to, and comes at the end of a sentence that mentions, the Department’s reply to a recent Freedom of Information request

  4. Nonetheless there’s a lot in the NUS analysis which requires further consideration and it’s naive to make this into a ‘more men’ argument per se. There are crucial influencing factors: socio-economic class, school attainment and culture, gender pay divides for graduate and non-graduate jobs which disadvantage women but also make it more difficult for men to step back onto the education ladder and fairly basic issues such as lack of affordable child-care which influence career choices and limit opportunities to study later in life,

  5. I think your point is broadly correct – it’s a nuanced area and focusing disproportionately on gender as a predictor is not helpful. There are three main predictors of attainment – social class, ethnicity and gender. Social class plays a much bigger role in attainment for both men and women than gender. At Key Stage 4, social class attainment gap approx. 3 times bigger than gender attainment gap.

  6. The belief boys should be strong allows increasingly more aggressive treatment as early as one year of age, designed to create more anger, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with “much less” kind, stable, (very little kind verbal interaction), and much less mental/emotional support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. It is the more aggressive, less supportive treatment, which creates the toughness or extra maintained layers of average stress: anger, fear, preparation for defense, and anxiety. These layers remain in the mind and take away real mental energy from academics, so those boys will have to work two or three times as hard to receive the same mental reward for work expended.
    This more aggressive, less supportive treatment creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others – parents, teachers, peers, and others in society. It creates lags in social vocabulary, less knowledge of syntax and other communication we as girls are given on a more continuous basis. It creates higher average stress, which creates more activity for stress relief (not genetics but environmentally created). The higher average stress also creates higher muscle tension, which hurts handwriting: more pressure on the pencil and a much tighter grip, hurting handwriting and motivation to write (too much pressure tighter grip causing early fatigue).
    The total effect including less care and support creates much more failure and a feeling of hopelessness, especially with our false genetic models firmly in place. Also to make it even tougher for boys is the granting of love and honor (feelings of self-worth) only on some condition of achievement, status, or image. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even be willing to give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor from society. Males not achieving in school are other areas are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not given boys for fear of coddling. Many boys (as you would expect) thus falling behind in school then turn their attention to sports and video games to gleam small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics creates a blatant mental denial of the differential treatment, which is creating the lower academics, lower esteem, and other problems many boys are facing today. So strong is the belief boys should be strong there is an almost emotional cannibalism allowed upon boys and men who appear weak in some way by society: parents, teachers, others, even from many girls and women, especially in the media.
    As girls we are treated much better and so enjoy more hope and care from society. Since we as girls are given by differential treatment, much more continual, positive – mental, social/emotional support, verbal interaction and care from an early age onward, this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls when compared with boys. We enjoy much more care and support and care from society from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things. We enjoy lower average stress for more ease of learning. We enjoy much more freedom of expression from much protection that makes us look more unstable at times. Of course we can also use that same freedom of expression to give verbal, silent abuse, and hollow kindness/patronization to our Male peers with impunity knowing we are protected. We enjoy much lower muscle tension for more ease and ability in handwriting and motivation to write. We enjoy much more positive, trust/communication from parents, teachers, peers, and more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket the much more amplified the differential treatment from infancy and more differentiated over time through adulthood. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor from society, while the boys and men are now failing more so and are now given even more ridicule and abuse by society. Mind you, this is also now coming from many girls and women using our still protected freedoms of expression and more so with false feelings of superiority. My learning theory will go to all on request and provides tools all of us can use to continually change and improve our lives.

  7. Imagine if a male NUS vice-president criticised a report on a gender inequality issue that causes issues for women. He’d be torn apart. And if socio-economic issues that impact young working class men’s progression after school into education and employment are part of the issue, why aren’t young working class women affected? And what about middle class men?

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