The head of UCAS warns that men risk being turned into an under-represented group on university campuses because of the gulf in applications between the sexes
Men are increasingly lagging behind women in the race for university places amid a “very worrying” gender gap at the heart of the higher education system, the head of the admissions service has warned.
The split between the sexes risks becoming a more serious problem than the gulf in access to university traditionally seen between students from rich and poor families, it was claimed.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), said that women were a third more likely to gain entry to degree courses than men.
In a speech, she warned that the gap would continue to widen over the next decade.
By 2025, the gulf in access between men and women will actually be more pronounced than that seen between deprived and wealthy students.
Mrs Curnock Cook suggested that universities would soon be required to treat boys as an under-represented group and start to target them with a coordinated outreach campaign.
The comments mirror concerns over the gender divide in schools and colleges, where girls outperform boys at every age group and subject discipline.
This summer, girls’ lead over boys at GCSE level widened to a record point, with almost 25 per cent of exams sat by girls being graded A* or A, compared with less than 18 per cent of those taken by boys.
It prompted calls from one leading academic for a major inquiry into boys’ education to address the slide.
Experts suggest that performance at school is now having a knock-on effect at university, where women are more likely to be admitted to courses and graduate with a good degree.
The Government and universities currently spend around £1bn a year on initiatives designed to “widen participation” to university among poor pupils, those attending underperforming schools and children in care.
But Mrs Curnock Cook said the “very worrying difference between application rates for men and women” should now be treated as an “important widening participation issue” in its own right.
“Women are a third more likely to apply for higher education,” she said. “In fact, our report last year showed we’ve got to the stage where more women are entering higher education than men are applying and the gap is getting wider.”
Research by UCAS showed that some 30 per cent of 18-year-old men applied to university straight from school or college in 2012, while 24.6 per cent were admitted.
For women, 40 per cent applied and 32.5 per cent were given places.
It meant that 18-year-old women were a third more likely to apply and enter higher education last year.
The Sutton Trust conference was staged to consider how universities can reach out to more students from poor families.
But Mrs Curnock Cook presented research showing how differences in admission rates by gender would be wider than those by socio-economic background by 2025, adding: “You can see how worried we should be about the progression to higher education between men and women.”
She said that – within the next 10 years – universities “will need to consider more about the difference between men and women than socio-economic background”.
“I continue to think that’s an issue that’s not getting enough air time in the policy debate. It’s a really important factor to keep an eye on,” she said.
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