Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Sunday, 7 June 2009 10:10 UK

Men 'out-performed at university'


Students give their views on the success of women

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Female students are ahead of men in almost every measure of UK university achievement, according to a report from higher education researchers.

A Higher Education Policy Institute report shows that women are more likely to get places in the top universities and go on to get better grades.

Women also outnumber men in high status subjects, such as law and medicine.

The institute's director, Bahram Bekhradnia, says the cause of this gender gap remains uncertain.

Women have been entering university in greater numbers than men in recent years - with the participation rate for young women standing at 49%, compared with 38% of young men.

'Good degrees'

The study disproves the notion that men dominate in the most highly-regarded subjects and institutions.

It found that women are taking more places at prestigious Russell Group universities and on the most sought-after courses.

It means changing a mindset that continues to see males as advantaged and females as disadvantaged... that is emphatically not the case in higher education
Higher Education Policy Institute

The only exception is for Oxford and Cambridge, where men and women are now level.

There are also still some subject areas, such as courses related to maths, physics and technology, where men are in the majority.

But the overall picture shows a consistent trend in women substantially outnumbering men.

There are more women on part-time and full-time courses and women account for a higher proportion of younger and mature students.

In degree grades, women are more likely to gain "good degrees" - taking first class and upper seconds together - while men are more likely to gain lower seconds and thirds.

However male students still maintain a narrow lead in firsts - 13.9% to 13% of those who graduate.

According to the report, women's greater success in gaining university places and achieving better degrees extends across different social classes and ethnic groups.

Exam barrier

But finding the cause for this is less straightforward.

"We just don't know," said Mr Bekhradnia.

Female students
The success of female students is a global trend

The introduction of GCSEs in the late 1980s coincided with the time that girls began to overtake boys in academic achievement.

However the report also shows that the greater success of women in education is a global pattern - suggesting it is more than the local circumstances of particular types of exam.

Another factor suggested in the gender gap is that boys' academic performance is weakening as much as girls' is improving.

A science test taken by 11 and 12-year-olds in the mid-1970s had been successfully passed by 54% of boys and 27% of girls.

Outreach programmes such as Aimhigher seek to engage and inspire young boys to go to university
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman

When the same test was taken in 2003, the scores for both boys and girls had fallen to 17% - a much more rapid decline for boys.

While young women have been entering university in greater numbers and achieving academic success, too many young men have been underperforming, suggests the report.

And while there is still a "mindset that continues to see males as advantaged and females as disadvantaged... that is emphatically not the case in higher education".

In response to the report, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said: "This government is committed to ensuring that everyone with talent and ability to succeed should be given the opportunity to do so whatever their background, gender or race.

"It is essential that we continue to tackle differences in aspirations, which is why outreach programmes such as Aimhigher seek to engage and inspire young boys to go to university through targeted activity around sport, science and music."

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