HEPI is not the first body to raise the issue of male underachievement in higher education. For example, the Higher Education Academy (HEA) published an important report on the issue in 2014 and Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive of UCAS, has been raising the issue for years.
In fact, it was a Newsnight interview with Mary Curnock Cook on A-Level results day two years ago that prompted HEPI to look at the issue afresh. During the interview, she highlighted the growing gap in university entry rates for men and women but freely admitted she did not know how to solve the problem.
We picked up the baton and now, two years later, have produced a detailed report on the topic. Some people say it is an imaginary problem. According to one analysis by the HEA that summed up (but did not agree with) this critique, focusing on male underachievement “fuels moral panic about women’s HE progress, detracts from ongoing female disadvantages, and from a much larger socio-economic gap within the student body.”
This argument is nonsense on stilts for three reasons. First, policymaking is not a zero-sum game in which you have to pick between male underachievement or female disadvantage or the socio-economic gap. All three are important. That is why our new paper begins by saying we agree other inequalities need to be addressed alongside doing more to help young men.
Secondly, it is nonsense because indicators of inequality are linked. The worst-performing group of all in terms of higher education entry are poor, young white men. So if we are to reduce differences between different ethnic groups and different socio-economic groups, tackling male disadvantage must be at the heart of the strategy.
Thirdly, anyone who says the relatively poor performance of men is not a real problem must explain why it does not matter that nearly 100,000 fewer men than women have applied for higher education this year, that a lower proportion of male students complete their course and that a lower proportion of male students achieve a first or 2:i.
Of course women face big challenges too. Lad culture on campus is a problem. Female graduates earn less than male graduates. The academic profession maintains a glass ceiling for women while men pass by in a glass elevator. Yet none of this detracts from the fact that many young men face enormous challenges reaching and sticking with higher education. There are currently fewer male undergraduates, fewer male postgraduates, fewer male full-time students and fewer male part-time students. So it is high time to end the phoney war that excuses male underachievement by explaining it away rather than tackling it. We need, as in other areas, to identify any discrimination (including unintentional discrimination) and to look at institutional processes afresh.
What does that mean in practice? It means helping young men:
- before entering higher education through targeted outreach and by having male role models involved in all widening participation activities;
- at the point of entry by offering more foundation years to aid the transition to degree-level study and by having more institutional targets for male recruitment; and
- after entering higher education, by ensuring pedagogy takes account of any perceived differences in the way men and women learn and by using learning analytics to track the performance of individual students.
If we do not act, the gap will keep growing because the last few years have shown that the more we ignore it, the bigger it gets. In 2007, David Eastwood, then the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and now the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said the underperformance of boys “matters in the sense that it mattered when it was the other way around.” That remains true almost a decade later. It is time to tackle the problem.