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Mind the gap: gender differences in higher education

  • 7 March 2020
  • By Rachel Hewitt

International Women’s Day always offers a good opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still have to go when it comes to equality between the sexes.

In fact, there is a positive story to be told when it comes to women’s place in higher education. The higher education participation level for young women has now reached 56.6%, compared to only 44.1% for young men. We have previously written about this gap and underachievement by young men in higher education. While this topic garners a great deal of controversy, it is one we must seek to address in striving for equality. 

However just looking at participation levels does not show the full picture. There are still significant gender differences between subjects, for example women are much less likely to study most STEM subjects. 

Given women’s high levels of participation in higher education, we might expect female graduates to have greater opportunities when they go into the workplace. However last week’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, looking at lifetime returns from higher education looking at graduate earnings, showed the picture to be more complex. 85% of women gain ‘positive net lifetime returns’ from higher education, compared to only around three quarters of men. On average, a university education leads to an increase in net earnings of about 20%. But the difference between male graduates and female graduates is stark: the estimated gain to the exchequer of individuals attending HE is around £110k per student for men and £30k per student for women.

There remain a variety of explanations for the gender pay gap: women taking time out to have children, occupations which receive lower pay often being dominated by women and, in some cases, companies continuing to pay women less for the same work. This highlights the difficulty with assuming the influence universities can have on their Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data: Cranfield University, where the student body is 74% male, may have very different earnings data to Bishops Grossteste, where the student body is 80% female. It also shows the risks of using LEO data to classify which courses are ‘low quality/value’. There may be courses which appear to offer poor returns when looking at averages, but in which women still see higher salary returns than non-graduates. That is without considering the wider benefits offered beyond earnings.

Looking at these averages alone still doesn’t provide a full picture. We know when other characteristics intersect with gender, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability, the gap grows even wider. Similarly, this does not even start to look at the gender differences seen in university staff, where women make up 55% of the total staff population, but only 29% of Vice-Chancellors and 37% of senior leadership teams. The gender pay gap of staff in universities is 15.9%, compared to the median level of 9.7% in other sectors.  

We have made great steps in the proportion of women now entering higher education and achieving academically. It is clear, even if only looking at the economic returns, that it is valuable for women to go on to higher education. But it is also clear that the labour market they go on to enter still has a long way to go in terms of equality, even when looking at universities own labour force.

For International Women’s Day in previous years, HEPI has written about gendered data bias (2019), sexual harassment in higher education (2018) and the challenges facing female academics (2017).

The below table takes the latest HESA staff and student data, to show the gender make up of universities across the UK. 

UniversityProportion of male studentsProportion of female studentsUniversityProportion of female staffProportion of male staff
Cranfield University74%26%Leeds College of Music64%36%
Leeds College of Music70%30%Royal Academy of Music59%42%
London Business School64%36%Royal College of Music58%41%
Heriot-Watt University60%40%The University College of Osteopathy55%41%
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine60%40%Cranfield University55%45%
Loughborough University59%41%Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine54%46%
Solent University56%44%Guildhall School of Music and Drama54%46%
The University of Portsmouth54%46%Royal Northern College of Music54%47%
Brunel University London54%46%Solent University54%46%
The National Film and Television School53%45%Heriot-Watt University52%48%
The University of Cambridge53%47%The National Film and Television School52%48%
Swansea University53%47%London School of Economics and Political Science52%48%
The University of Bath53%47%Ravensbourne University London51%49%
Aston University52%48%Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance50%50%
Coventry University52%48%The University of Bath50%50%
The University of Oxford52%48%London Metropolitan University50%50%
Ravensbourne University London51%48%City, University of London50%50%
Royal Northern College of Music51%49%The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts50%50%
Staffordshire University51%49%The University of Manchester50%50%
University of Abertay Dundee51%49%Royal Holloway and Bedford New College50%50%
Royal Academy of Music51%49%The University of Sheffield49%50%
AECC University College50%50%Aston University49%51%
Royal College of Music50%50%The University of St Andrews49%51%
Royal Agricultural University50%50%Brunel University London49%51%
The University of Lancaster49%50%Queen Mary University of London49%51%
Guildhall School of Music and Drama49%50%Loughborough University49%51%
The University of Warwick49%51%Aberystwyth University49%51%
Newcastle University48%51%The University of Cambridge49%51%
The University of Strathclyde48%52%The University of Strathclyde49%51%
Buckinghamshire New University48%52%The University of West London49%51%
University of St Mark and St John47%53%Falmouth University49%52%
SRUC47%52%University of South Wales49%51%
The University of Sheffield47%53%The University of Oxford49%51%
The University of Southampton47%53%Norwich University of the Arts48%52%
The University of Buckingham47%53%Birkbeck College48%52%
The University of Kent47%53%The University of Leicester48%52%
London School of Economics and Political Science46%53%The University of Birmingham47%53%
The University of Leicester46%54%Royal Conservatoire of Scotland47%52%
Harper Adams University46%54%The University of Southampton47%53%
Gower College Swansea46%58%University College London47%53%
University of Durham46%54%Liverpool John Moores University47%53%
Liverpool John Moores University46%54%The University of Lancaster47%53%
St Mary's University, Twickenham46%54%The University of Edinburgh47%53%
Aberystwyth University46%54%The University of Surrey47%53%
The University of Surrey46%54%The University of Westminster47%53%
The University of Manchester46%54%The University of Warwick47%53%
University of Nottingham46%54%University of Nottingham47%53%
The University of Exeter46%54%Birmingham City University47%53%
The University of Salford45%54%Newcastle University46%54%
The University of Lincoln45%55%The University of Lincoln46%54%
Queen Mary University of London45%55%The University of Greenwich46%53%
The University of Essex45%55%De Montfort University46%54%
The University of Liverpool45%55%The University of Bolton46%54%
University of Northumbria at Newcastle45%55%The University of York46%54%
Sheffield Hallam University45%55%The University of Sussex46%54%
Bournemouth University45%55%The University of Salford46%54%
De Montfort University45%55%University of Abertay Dundee46%54%
Birkbeck College45%55%The University of Exeter46%54%
The University of Sussex45%55%The University of Leeds46%54%
University of the West of England, Bristol44%56%Swansea University46%54%
Teesside University44%56%Queen's University Belfast46%54%
Leeds Beckett University44%56%Edinburgh Napier University46%54%
Edinburgh Napier University44%56%Leeds Beckett University46%54%
The University of Bristol44%56%Coventry University46%54%
The University of Reading44%56%London South Bank University45%55%
The Nottingham Trent University44%56%The University of Bristol45%55%
The University of York44%56%University of Durham45%55%
University of South Wales43%56%The Manchester Metropolitan University45%55%
The University of Bradford43%57%Royal College of Art45%55%
The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts43%57%St Mary's University College45%55%
Cardiff Metropolitan University43%57%Goldsmiths College45%55%
University of Wales Trinity Saint David43%57%University of Northumbria at Newcastle45%55%
The University of Hull43%57%SOAS University of London45%55%
The University of Huddersfield43%57%The University of Glasgow45%55%
The University College of Osteopathy43%58%Cardiff University45%55%
City, University of London43%57%The University of East London45%55%
Ulster University43%57%The University of Liverpool45%55%
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College43%57%Bournemouth University45%55%
Queen's University Belfast42%58%King's College London45%55%
The University of Birmingham42%58%The University of Portsmouth44%56%
University of Hertfordshire42%58%Staffordshire University44%56%
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland42%57%Ulster University44%56%
University of Plymouth42%58%The University of Chichester44%56%
Glasgow Caledonian University42%58%The University of Kent44%56%
The University of Central Lancashire42%58%The University of East Anglia44%56%
The University of Aberdeen42%58%The Arts University Bournemouth44%56%
The University of Greenwich41%59%Royal Agricultural University44%54%
Falmouth University41%58%The University of Huddersfield44%56%
University of Gloucestershire41%59%The University of Bradford44%56%
The University of St Andrews41%59%The University of Essex44%56%
The Manchester Metropolitan University41%59%The Nottingham Trent University43%56%
London South Bank University41%59%Glasgow School of Art43%57%
Kingston University41%59%Middlesex University43%57%
Glyndŵr University41%59%University of Hertfordshire43%57%
Keele University41%59%The University of Hull43%57%
University of Derby41%59%University of Gloucestershire43%57%
University College London41%59%University of the Arts, London43%58%
Middlesex University41%59%Bath Spa University43%57%
The University of Westminster40%60%University of Wales Trinity Saint David43%57%
Cardiff University40%60%The University of Reading43%57%
The University of East Anglia40%60%The University of Sunderland43%57%
Bangor University40%60%The University of Aberdeen42%58%
Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance40%60%Kingston University42%58%
Oxford Brookes University40%60%Buckinghamshire New University42%58%
The University of Glasgow40%59%SRUC42%58%
The University of Sunderland40%60%The University of Dundee42%58%
The University of Bolton40%60%Oxford Brookes University42%58%
University of Bedfordshire40%60%The University of Brighton42%58%
The University of Leeds39%61%Cardiff Metropolitan University42%58%
University of the Highlands and Islands39%61%Sheffield Hallam University42%58%
University of Suffolk39%61%The University of Central Lancashire42%58%
The University of Edinburgh39%61%The Institute of Cancer Research41%59%
The Open University39%61%Liverpool Hope University41%59%
The University of East London38%62%University of the West of England, Bristol41%59%
The Robert Gordon University38%62%University of London (Institutes and activities)41%58%
The University of Brighton38%62%University of Derby41%59%
The University of West London38%62%York St John University41%59%
The Institute of Cancer Research38%62%University of Plymouth41%59%
Norwich University of the Arts38%62%Bangor University41%59%
The University of Chichester37%63%The University of Winchester41%59%
Birmingham City University37%63%Conservatoire for Dance and Drama41%59%
The University of Wolverhampton37%63%St Mary's University, Twickenham41%59%
University of London (Institutes and activities)37%63%Leeds Arts University40%58%
The University of the West of Scotland36%64%The University of the West of Scotland40%60%
Roehampton University36%64%Anglia Ruskin University40%60%
Anglia Ruskin University36%64%The Open University39%61%
The University of Northampton36%64%London Business School39%61%
The University of Stirling36%64%The University of Buckingham39%60%
King's College London36%63%Teesside University39%61%
Leeds Trinity University36%64%Harper Adams University39%61%
The University of Dundee35%64%Roehampton University39%60%
Conservatoire for Dance and Drama35%64%The University of Stirling39%61%
London Metropolitan University35%65%Hartpury University39%61%
St George's, University of London35%65%The Robert Gordon University39%61%
Goldsmiths College34%66%Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance39%61%
SOAS University of London34%66%Newman University39%59%
York St John University34%66%The University of Wolverhampton39%61%
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance33%66%The University of Northampton39%61%
Royal College of Art33%66%Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine39%61%
University of Cumbria33%67%The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama39%61%
The University of Winchester33%67%University for the Creative Arts39%61%
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine33%67%Keele University39%61%
Glasgow School of Art32%67%London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine39%62%
The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama32%68%Leeds Trinity University38%62%
University College Birmingham32%68%Plymouth College of Art38%62%
Hartpury University32%68%Canterbury Christ Church University38%62%
Edge Hill University31%69%University of Chester38%61%
Bath Spa University31%69%Glasgow Caledonian University38%62%
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine31%70%AECC University College38%63%
University of Chester31%69%University College Birmingham37%63%
The Arts University Bournemouth31%69%Glyndŵr University36%64%
Liverpool Hope University30%69%University of the Highlands and Islands36%64%
Canterbury Christ Church University30%70%University of Bedfordshire36%64%
University of Worcester30%70%University of Suffolk36%64%
University for the Creative Arts30%70%St George's, University of London36%64%
Plymouth College of Art30%70%Edge Hill University35%65%
St Mary's University College28%72%Stranmillis University College35%65%
University of the Arts, London25%75%Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh35%65%
Newman University24%76%University of St Mark and St John35%65%
Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh24%76%University of Cumbria34%66%
Leeds Arts University22%77%University of Worcester34%66%
Writtle University College21%79%Bishop Grosseteste University33%67%
The Royal Veterinary College21%79%Writtle University College32%66%
Bishop Grosseteste University19%80%The University of Wales (central functions)32%68%
Courtauld Institute of Art19%81%The Royal Veterinary College31%68%
Stranmillis University College18%82%Courtauld Institute of Art25%75%


  1. Pete says:

    The blog raises an interesting question.

    Is the right answer to e.g. graduates from working-class background, those from some ethnic minorities and those from “left-behind towns” doing less well in the labour market than similarly qualified white middle-class graduates in the southeast to restrict the number of people from these backgrounds who can access those qualifications?

    Is that effectively what we’re going to end up with given the likelihood of simplistic LEO-based metrics determining what a low-value course is?

  2. Stan says:

    Very interesting commentary to the numbers.
    Basically the article feels very misandrist. The jest of it is:

    “We successfully pushed boys down in education, and the trend for boys participation is going down. But there is more to do – boys still dominate some fields and we must push them down there as well. Boys still manage to outearn girls in the later life, but hopefully if we continue pushing boys down, we can get proper equity”.

    How can anyone even talk about helping girls in education when boys are now struggling more?

  3. Mzich says:

    I can’t agree more Stan. Seems like we should be striving for excellence with both genders? I’d like to see numbers closer to 50:50 male:female.

  4. jeff says:

    Very true Stan.

  5. Esther Jover Lugo says:

    Without any intention of coming across as controversial, Stan, I think you are reading it only from your own perspective, a White middle-class man. The question here is why two people that have achieved the same qualification have different retribution
    ‘the estimated gain to the exchequer of individuals attending HE is around £110k per student for men and £30k per student for women.’
    That is the real question.

  6. Jean-Luc says:

    Did anyone consider that this is a meaningless metric? Try to measure “gain to the exchequer” from individuals with brown eyes vs those with green eyes. If you find a difference, is that due to their eye colour?

  7. william says:

    Stan, I feel like you are getting mixed up here, you are saying just because the percent of male that goes to university is going down means that there is less male going. But this is wrong for example if 100 male and 25 female go to university one year that is 80:20 but next year 100 male and 50 female then that is 67:33. That is a smaller percent but the number of males going to university hasn’t changed. You can look at the “Accepted applicants through UCAS ” in 2020 and it shows the amount of male are indeed going up, as well as the female although at a faster rate. Which means male aren’t getting push down as you say, if that was the case you would see a decrease in male going.

  8. Largo says:

    Esther Jover Lugo, you proved Stan’s point with your regurgitation of middle-class feminist woman’s identity politics “rebuttal.”

    As for your question, perhaps you should read the next paragraph: more men study STEM than women, women tend to take out to have children, etc. Men and women also have different abilities and capabilities.

  9. Joe says:

    How very sad to see young boys being left behind, I knew boys did worse in school gcse and a levels so it no surprise. It’s a shame this article thinks this something to celebrate. Boys definitely need more support in school and higher education we need to get it as close to 50% as possible.

  10. Richard says:

    I agree with Stan – the thrust of this ‘ideology’ is clearly to reduce the number of males in HE [with no apparent satisfactory end point so we are left to assume it is must be zero?]. Clearly “equality” has nothing to do with it because where are the demonstrations for more males in universities? Why are we still even discussing the myth of the ‘gender pay gap’ long after it has been debunked?

  11. a says:

    @Esther Jover Lugo >The question here is why two people that have achieved the same qualification have different retribution

    It is possible that the initial assumption is not right; maybe the qualification is different because the curriculum is different.

    The engineering curriculum is difficult, but also useful if you want exploit the laws of nature and the resouces on this planet. It is natural that engineers make money.

  12. Dave says:

    I agree Stan, there is a continued ideology that forces women into HE at the expense of men and will continue to do so. The gender inequality favouring women is clear to see but they continue to pursue because of past bitterness and resentment.

    Men, fortunately, are pursuing STEM subjects and are getting paid for it. Men are also going back to traditional professional within the building sector and are out-earning graduates from the start.

    Men realised a while ago that Universities aren’t worth it for a lot of subject areas, when will women wake up and realise this fact too?

  13. dan says:

    From experience I have found men and women to operate differently.

    I am not saying that women are incapable of higher brain function, but I am saying that from my experience they are more prone to emotional influence.

  14. Aimee Whitworth says:

    Yet women have continue to get better scores in almost any area/level of education. These stats aren’t proof of men being “pushed out” of higher education. If you actually looked into it you’d see that, whilst more and more women are going into HE in recent years, the number of men still in HE is also still rising. People with lower incomes and more diverse backgrounds, including w/c and BAME men, are gradually becoming more interested in university.
    Stop manipulating stats to fit your victim mindset, you aren’t a victim of misandry or discrimination just because men are no longer the only ones being catered to.
    The amount of grown men in these comments incapable of logical thought is laughable but unsurprising. Grow up and stop blaming your own shortcomings or failure to succeed in HE on women.

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