Educationalists are starting to warn of a gender crisis in Britain’s universities. Even as the gap in applications from rich and poor students is narrowing, that between males and females is markedly widening.
The numbers are certainly striking. A whopping 87,000 more women than men are hoping to enter tertiary education this autumn, some 7,000 more even than last year. Indeed, female school-leavers are now a third more likely to go on to university than their male counterparts.
Cue worried talk of young men as a disadvantaged group requiring special attention. One expert is even suggesting that less onerous entry requirements should apply to males. That suggestion, at least, can swiftly be dismissed. Not only because it would make a mockery of the long (and far from finished) fight for equality. Not even because it would undermine the credibility of our world-class university system. But also because it would – rightly – be illegal.
What of the wider issue, though? There are some statistical points to consider – the impact of shifting female-dominated teacher – and nurse-training into universities, for example. But there is no doubt that boys are lagging behind not only in university applications but also in GCSE and A-level results.
Insofar as the aim is to ensure that all children reach their educational potential, we must, of course, be aware of such trends. But it would be as well not to get carried away. After so many decades of boys routinely outperforming girls, the notion of a crisis, after just a few years of reversal, is somewhat precipitous. There is also the small matter of individual choice. If young men decide that they would rather go straight into paid employment, or that they would prefer an apprenticeship to an academic qualification, or even that they are not interested – so be it.
It is up to the educational establishment to create institutions that are open to all who wish to attend them. It is neither necessary nor desirable for universities to engage in social engineering. Nor should we judge them by anything other than their students’ aptitudes. So long as the only barrier to male participation is individual choice, there is no crisis.