Women are now a third more likely than men to opt to go to university, according to UCAS application figures

Children from poorer families twice as likely to apply to university as they were a decade ago

Education Editor

Men will soon become the most disadvantaged group in the country when it comes to going to university, the head of UCAS predicts today.

Figures show that the gap between applications from women and men is rising sharply - while that between rich and poor students is narrowing.

The 15 January deadline for applications for university this autumn showed over 87,000 more women than men had applied, increasing the gap by 7,000 compared to January 2013. Women are now a third more likely than men to opt to go to university.

Meanwhile, applications from would-be students in disadvantaged areas are rising - with those from poorer families twice as likely to apply as a decade ago.

“There remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade,” said Dr Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS.

“Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group in terms of going to university and this underperformance needs urgent focus across the education sector.

The growing gap, which follows years of male domination at university until the mid-1990s, has prompted a leading academic to suggest the remedy might be to offer university places to men on lower A-level grades.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, said: “The solution put forward by some universities to combat disadvantage was to offer pupils from state schools positions on lower grades than independent schools. “Perhaps universities should now admit men on lower grades - although I suppose at the moment that could be illegal.

“One thing is becoming clear - the advantage conferred by independent schools is now less than the advantage obtained by being a female.”

Professor Smithers put forward three main reasons why the number of applications from girls is soaring:

  • their GCSE and A-level results are better.
  • teacher and nurse training, which largely attract females, now takes place in universities.
  • boys may be more attracted to apprenticeships and jobs, rather than incur debts from the £9,000 a year fees regime.

“Apprentices is a possible explanation,” he said. “Certainly men have tended to be in the majority when it comes to vocational qualifications.

“It could be that more men are attracted to entering employment. Some of the subjects men are attracted to, like engineering, are the ones that are struggling to fill places.”

Overall, today’s figures show a four per cent rise compared to last year with 580,000 applicants. 

Last year’s figures led to record numbers of students enrolling in the autumn, more than in 2011, the year of the stampede to beat £9,000 a year fees.

An unprecedented 35 per cent of 18-year-olds have applied for places this year.

The figures also show an increase in the number of international students - up eight per cent to 50,290, despite fears the Government’s tough stance on immigration and visas for would-be students might put off potential applicants,. The numbers from other EU countries are also rising - up five per cent to 39,780.

The rise in the UK is greatest in London with a five per cent increase - while the North-East, East Midlands and East of England only rose by two per cent.  It was spread evenly between applications to the most selective universities, middle ranking institutions and those with a tradition of accepting more disadvantaged students.

The figure for girls, though, is the highest ever with 333,700 applications, compared to 331,800 in 2011. The number of male applicants is 246,300, down from 251,730 in 2011.

Conor Ryan, the director of research and communication at the Sutton Trust charity, welcomed the narrowing of the class gap, but added: “With a 2.5-fold gap still existing, there is of course more to do.

“Today’s report shows that the gap between boys’ and girls’ applications from disadvantaged areas has widened with young women from the most disadvantaged communities much more likely to apply to university than young men.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: “Money worries shouldn’t stop anyone from applying: there are no up-front fees... If you’re good enough to get in, you can afford to go.”

Comment: My instinct tells me there is no crisis

By Richard Garner

It is an intriguing - though perhaps tongue in cheek - suggestion that boys should be offered university places on lower grades to overcome the paucity of men making their way into higher education.

Little did we know way back in the 1970’s when campaigns for equal access to the curriculum for girls started just how effective they would be. In fact, I remember being told by one academic at the height of concern over grade inflation in A-level results that the idea was nonsense as the entire rise was due to the improved performance of girls. To argue the contrary, you had to accept boys had become less intelligent.

My instinct tells me there is no crisis - and that the only thing we have to do is ensure that every child gets the best out of their education regardless of their education. Obviously, easier said than done, I grant you.

I would leave you with one thought, though. There is still a gender divide in education. Boys are more likely to opt for vocational subjects and apprenticeships in areas like engineering. Girls should be encouraged to enter this male preserve, too, even if it does mean a small falling off in the numbers going straight to university from school.

Of course no-one would worry about that if there was real parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes.

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