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New HEPI report reveals the underachievement of young men in higher education – and calls on the sector to do more to tackle the problem

  • 12 May 2016

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published a new report looking at the underachievement of young men in higher education.

Written by Nick Hillman (HEPI’s Director) and Nicholas Robinson, Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education – and how to start tackling it includes new data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Office for Fair Access (Offa) and has a Foreword by Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive of UCAS.

Nick Hillman, co-author of the report and the Director of HEPI, said:

‘Nearly everyone seems to have a vague sense that our education system is letting young men down, but there are few detailed studies of the problem and almost no clear policy recommendations on what to do about it.

‘Young men are much less likely to enter higher education, are more likely to drop out and are less likely to secure a top degree than women. Yet, aside from initial teacher training, only two higher education institutions currently have a specific target to recruit more male students. That is a serious problem that we need to tackle.

‘Of course women face substantial challenges too. Female graduates earn lower salaries than male graduates. Female academics face too many obstacles in being promoted. Lad culture can make life uncomfortable for female students. But policymaking is not a zero-sum game in which you have to choose between caring for one group or the other. Indeed, we can only tackle the socio-economic gap in higher education participation by focusing on the underachievement of young men, and particularly disadvantaged young white men.

‘We recommend more widening participation spending should be focused on boys, a new Take Our Sons to University Day, the involvement of male role models in all widening participation activities, more foundation years, a new focus on gender in higher education pedagogy and close consideration of how big data can aid under-represented and underperforming groups.’

Nick Robinson, co-author of the report, said:

‘Recent trends in higher education have left male students in a minority across most of the developed world. The division of males and females into such different fields of study reinforces stereotypes and has long-term consequences.

‘Higher education is a consistent predictor of greater civic participation, wellbeing and life expectancy. So the big gender gap should concern everyone.

‘Policymakers in and outside universities need to address the challenges before they get any worse. We may not know how to solve the entire problem, but we do know how to start tackling it and we will learn further lessons as we make progress.’

In her Foreword, UCAS’s Chief Executive, Mary Curnock Cook, points out that girls born in 2016 are on course to be 75 per cent more likely to go to higher education than boys of the same age. She writes:

‘HEPI’s scan across the evidence and possible solutions to the growing imbalance in educational achievement of boys is enormously useful and highlights just how complex this topic is.

‘Understanding the challenges presented requires expertise in a vast array of subjects: neurology, psychology, pedagogy, culture, social science, anthropology, education, assessment, geography, economics, humanity, feminism, politics, history and behavioural science – come to think of it, it has the makings of a superb liberal arts / science degree.

‘But the evidence is compelling. Boys are performing worse than girls across primary, secondary and higher education, not to mention apprenticeships, and the situation is getting worse. On current trends, the gap between rich and poor will be eclipsed by the gap between males and females within a decade.’

Notes for Editors

  • A lower proportion of entrants to UK higher education institutions are male than ever before: by the main January UCAS deadline of mid-January 2016, over 94,000 fewer men had applied for higher education. Men are in a minority among undergraduates, postgraduates, full-time students and part-time students.
  • The gap is biggest among the poorest: in 2015, young women on free school meals were 51 per cent more likely to make it to higher education. Young white men from disadvantaged households perform worst. Only 8.9 per cent of 18-year old white men on free school meals enter higher education, compared to 43.8 per cent of Asian women not on free school meals (POLAR quintile 3 areas).
  • Over 80 per cent of higher education institutions have more female than male students (123 institutions versus 26). Yet new analysis conducted for HEPI by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) shows only two higher education institutions have targets for recruiting more male students (excluding teacher training).
  • Male underachievement is also evident in the figures for drop-out rates and degree performance. Previously unpublished data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show 8 per cent of men, compared to 6 per cent of women, are not in higher education following their year of entry. Other new HESA data show 69 per cent of men achieve a 2:1 or above, compared to 73 per cent of women.
  • The Government does not have a joined-up response to the problem. The Department for Education says it no longer focuses specifically on boys’ underachievement, but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has instructed higher education institutions to focus on the under-representation of young men, particularly white working-class boys.
  • There is considerable misunderstanding over the causes. While differences in the achievement of boys and girls appear early in the education system, received wisdom identifies the transition from O-Levels to GCSEs as a key factor in the improved educational performance of young women. Yet the evidence for this is not compelling. More likely causes of the current gender disparity include: boys working less hard at school; a higher graduate earnings premium for women than men; and a shift to graduate entry for female-dominated careers, such as nursing and teaching.
  • We recommend the following policies to help young men enter and succeed in higher education:
  1. Rebalance widening participation spending from financial support to outreach programmes, particularly initiatives aimed at engaging young men.
  2. Introduce a ‘Take Our Sons To University Day’ modelled on ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day’, with schools, colleges and employers encouraged to provide time off.
  3. Include male role models in all activities aimed at widening participation in higher education.
  4. Encourage more institutions to set themselves targets for male recruitment.
  5. Consider whether more foundation years of the sort already used to help international students enter higher education and to broaden access to medical schools should be used to help more young men access higher education.
  6. Ensure pedagogy in higher education reflects any evidence of perceived differences in the way men and women study and learn.
  7. Use big data (learning analytics) to help individual students from under-represented and underperforming groups, including men.


  1. Aaron says:

    The research and statistics cited here seem dubious at best. In addition the possible causes are speculative rather than based on readily available evidence, such as the fact that there are more and higher-paying jobs available to male high school graduates than female. Overall it seems the larger problem is lack of opportunity based on socioeconomic status; If we want to solve problems of inequality let’s prioritize the major over the minutiae.

  2. Writer says:

    It was interesting to read your article about education. I believe that it is very important that men also receive higher education on an equal basis with women.

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