Universities should set targets to increase the number of male students because men are so underrepresented in higher education, the government’s new fair access regulator has suggested. Les Ebdon said boys had been falling behind girls at school and the effect was feeding through into degree courses.
This could mean universities monitoring the number of men studying for degrees in a similar way to other underrepresented groups in higher education, such as those from poor families or ethnic minorities and those with disabilities. Universities could ultimately be required to increase the numbers of men.
Ebdon, who became director of fair access this month, said: “We need to keep a careful eye that our education system is encouraging boys to aspire to university and achieve. We can’t ignore the fact that they are underrepresented in our universities.”
He said universities could consider expanding schemes already in place to encourage male applicants for nursing and teacher-training courses and to inspire black boys to go to university.
He added: “We face a challenge in the education system with motivating boys. It used to be said it was an issue with Afro-Caribbean males. The latest evidence is that it is becoming a greater male problem.”
In addition to discrepancies in nursing and teaching, women make up more than three-quarters of veterinary students and two-thirds of those studying law and languages.
This year, 56.8 per cent of all applicants are female. Ebdon added: “I have sons and a daughter and my daughter worked very much harder than my sons and that is what I hear elsewhere.”
In his interview with The Sunday Times, Ebdon said he expected universities — especially the leading research institutions — to do more to increase their intake of students from state schools and deprived backgrounds.
“I will be expecting universities to set themselves more challenging targets, we will be monitoring against those targets, we will also be supporting universities,” said Ebdon, former vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University.
He praised summer schools given by Oxford and Cambridge Universities which introduce comprehensive school pupils to their “quaint and unusual” customs.
Ebdon gave his backing to universities that make lower A-level grade offers to applicants if they come from underperforming comprehensives.
“A number of universities . . . have some pretty solid evidence to suggest that when they have admitted students from underachieving schools with slightly lower grades they have outperformed students with slightly higher grades from high achieving schools,” said Ebdon.
“Where there is good evidence for that, I have made it clear I am supportive of them going down that route.”
Ebdon’s appointment proved controversial when in February he warned an MPs’ committee that he could, in extreme cases, use a “nuclear option” of refusing universities permission to charge more than £6,000 a year in fees or fining them hundreds of thousands of pounds if they failed in their obligations.
Tory MPs have warned they will attack Ebdon in the Commons if they judge him to be overstepping his authority and interfering in admissions.
One backbencher, Brian Binley, has complained to David Willetts, the universities minister, that Ebdon, “within hours of taking up his post, appears to be salivating at the prospect of fining institutions”. (The Australian)