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It's academic: university women are beating men at almost everything

There are more of them studying, they are less likely to drop out, and they will probably end up with a better degree – but less money

Richard Garner
Sunday 31 May 2009 00:00 BST

Women outperform men in almost every single aspect of higher education, according to research published today.

The number of women at university began to exceed the number of men for the first time 16 years ago.

However, for years there were still academics claiming that men had "more where it mattered", ie at elite Russell Group universities – the group which represents 20 of the UK's leading research institutions including Oxford and Cambridge.

One study published in 2005, Class Rifts Eclipsed by Sex Divide, said: "Many women are studying in lower-status universities... the university continues to be a space where class privilege is maintained and women's participation is limited to the bottom of a hierarchical continuum."

Now a new study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the independent university think-tank, debunks that finding as a myth.

It finds that not only do women outnumber men overall at university, they also outnumber them at every type of university. They are also more likely to get a good degree pass (a 2:1 or a first) and are less likely to drop out.

For good measure, the Government's attempts to widen university participation among disadvantaged groups also appear to have struck more of a chord with women than men. There are more girls who were entitled to free meals at school going on to higher education than boys.

In virtually every ethnic group, too, including Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, where religion or culture may have led to some families downplaying the importance of education to women, more women than men go to university.

Figures cited by HEPI show 49.2 per cent of women now opt for higher education – compared with only 37.2 per cent of men.

Women are further ahead in representation at post-1992 universities (the former polytechnics) – 23.8 per cent of women attend one, compared with 18 per cent of men.

However, the report goes on to find that eight per cent of women attending a Russell Group university compared with 6.5 per cent of men. At older established universities women generally outnumber men – 11.3 per cent of them enrolling compared with 8.6 per cent of men. Only at Oxford and Cambridge is there any equality of representation – 0.7 per cent of each sex attend Oxbridge.

When it comes to degree passes, 63.9 per cent of women graduates obtain a "good" degree (first or upper second) compared with 59.9 per cent of men. The percentage of women obtaining a first (13 per cent) is lower than that of men (13. 9per cent), but because their overall numbers are so much greater, this still means that more women than men are now leaving university with a first.

The report also shows that women outnumber men on most courses – including law and medicine courses – which ultimately lead to high paid employment. Only in technology, physical science, architecture, maths, computer sciences, and engineering are women outnumbered by men.

Despite this, women are still likely to earn a lower wage than men on leaving university. One of the reasons the report cites for this is their greater number on courses leading to jobs in teaching or the creative arts.

Women were more altruistic and valued their job environment more, the report found. They were less career driven or financially motivated.

Researchers asked whether the growing gender gap mattered, and cited evidence from the Government to the Commons select committee monitoring education which stated: "We are increasingly concerned about male participation."

However, it added that while recognising "sex inequality is clearly an issue" it did not want its remarks to imply a policy to reduce the number of women enrolling for higher education courses.

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