Universities urged to treat working class boys as disadvantaged group

Universities will be told they should recruit more white, working-class boys in the wake of figures showing a massive slump in applications from men for courses.

The Universities minister David Willetts wants white, working-class males put in the same category as students from other disadvantaged communities and ethnic minorities – as groups that should be targeted for recruitment. The move has the potential to create conflict with Britain's independent schools if universities – as a result – use it to discriminate against middle-class applicants.

In an interview with i, Mr Willetts said that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) university watchdog "can look at a range of disadvantaged groups – social class and ethnicity, for instance – when it comes to access agreements, so I don't see why they couldn't look at white working-class boys."

The final figures for last autumn's intake show a 54,000 slump in applications from men – 13 per cent down on the previous year and four times higher than the fall-off from females. While 40 per cent of all 18-year-old women applied, only 30 per cent of men of the same age did (see right).

Mr Willetts called this "the culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning... That is a challenge for all policymakers." He added: "I worry about what looks like increasing under-performance by young men."

Mr Willetts said he plans to advance the question of including white, working-class boys as a target group for recruitment in university access agreements – which universities have to sign to gain permission to charge higher fees – in his forthcoming meeting with Professor Les Ebdon, the director of the access watchdog OFFA.

If universities fail to deliver on their access agreements, they can be refused permission to charge fees of higher than £6,000 a year – although this sanction has not yet been invoked.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the country's most selective universities, said: "Universities cannot solve this problem alone. The root causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are under-achievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course."

The latest gender breakdown on applications for university, for 2011, shows that girls outnumber boys in medicine and dentistry (10,145 to 7,190), as well as in law (19,080 to 13,255).