HEPI Report on Male Underachievement in Higher Education

university participation rates

Participation rates in HE by demographic (from UCAS, End of Cycle Report 2015, p.130).                  FSM = free school meals, an indicator of disadvantage. Note that eight of the top nine are female.

Today the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report, “Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education – and how to start tackling it“, by Nick Hillman and Nicholas Robinson. My opinion of the report is mixed. On the positive side, I welcome any authoritative body highlighting the issue of male disadvantage in education. It is especially welcome in view of its rarity: public bodies generally ignore the issue. This point is well made by the head of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, in her Foreword to the HEPI report,

The recent Department for Education white paper, “Education, Excellence, Everywhere” makes no mention of the chronic under performance of boys in primary and secondary education. As the white paper title indicates, the Department is more exercised by geographical inequality in education outcomes and the document is peppered with maps to underline the point. There may be pockets of poor standards of education across the country, but the underperformance of boys is pervasive throughout social strata, geographies and phases. This (HEPI) report is compelling reading as it peels the onion of male underperformance in higher education, and it proposes some imaginative interventions. But its real value is in highlighting the sheer scale of the problem.”

The HEPI report itself notes that, “The Department for Education says it no longer focuses specifically on boys’ underachievement” (did it ever?). This statement is confirmed by the DoE’s response to J4MB’s FoI enquiry in July 2015.

Anyone drawing attention to the neglect of male disadvantages by public bodies, as HEPI have done, is to be congratulated. And there is a conspiracy of silence on the matter. For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in their 2015 Is Britain Fairer report, were forced to admit that poor white boys are the most educationally disadvantaged (see the graphic which heads this post). But they remain insufficiently concerned to recommend any action on the matter. They choose to make no mention of male educational underachievement in their April 2016 report Socio-economic Equality and Human Rights Commission. Instead their recommendation on HE, whilst boasting about ensuring “that higher education is equally accessible to all” raises issues only about female students and minorities.

The HEPI report’s emphasis on males qua males, rather than as an intersectional demographic, e.g., “black males” or “poor males”, is a valuable contribution in respect of identifying a valid source of disadvantage, namely simply being male (see the graphic which heads this post). For example,

The weak performance of people from disadvantaged backgrounds or certain ethnic groups can only be fully addressed by dealing with the differences in male and female achievement. For example, while men underperform overall, poor white men have the worst record of all. So tackling the underperformance of young men is essential if we are to tackle other dismal higher education performance indicators.”

Exactly so. And the HEPI report makes a further valuable contribution simply by emphatically disagreeing with commonly espoused sentiments like,

Those opposing this refocusing [on men] suggest that it fuels moral panic about women’s HE progress, detracts from ongoing female disadvantages, and from a much larger socioeconomic gap within the student body.”

The HEPI authors opine, rightly, that, “Policymaking is not a zero-sum game in which you have to choose between caring about female disadvantage or the socio-economic gap or male underachievement. All three matter.”

The HEPI report also makes some valid observations regarding how the expansion of the degree franchise has affected the statistics substantially. For example, the fact that nursing studies are now degree level, but used not to be, has a significant impact on the statistics. The HEPI report says,

Discounting students taking Subjects Allied to Medicine and Education reduces the disparity in the total number of male and female higher education students from around 281,000 to just 34,000.”

This is partly a valid point, though one can question why nursing remains so female dominated – and omitting this category would also airbrush away emphatic female dominance in medicine, dentistry and teaching. Moreover, I would argue that nursing is a more valuable degree than degrees in many other subjects. Since the old polytechnics became universities the percentage of people obtaining degrees has inflated dramatically. One can question the value of some of these degrees. So the educational underachievement of males at HE level, whist indubitable because it extends across all classes of institution, may not be faithfully measured by the total degree statistics. In fact I suspect that many young people would be better off not going to university at all. The emphasis should be on quality of graduates, not quantity. I might as well add elitism to my list of sins. However, it’s worth noting that there are also more women than men entering apprenticeships.

I agree with Mary Curnock Cook that the value of the HEPI report is in highlighting the sheer scale of the problem. However, I suggest that the report’s authors have not yet got even close to grasping the full scale of the problem – for it is far wider than just education. So the educational issue cannot be addressed by educational interventions alone. Consequently, their suggestions for tackling male under-achievement in HE are doomed to failure.

In particular I could never support a “Take Our Sons To University Day”. The Gloria Steinem instigated “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” was the most appalling piece of sexism. I could never condone anything like it. Switching the sexes makes no difference to me. Similarly, I am opposed to targets for women (e.g., women on Boards or in senior academic posts) so I could not support “institutions setting themselves targets for male recruitment in future“. Men need a level playing field, not “affirmative action”. I’m happy to leave that nonsense to feminists.

On the other hand it might help if universities did not have publicity blurb like this.

On the issue of getting more men into teaching, this could be achieved via an initiative akin to Athena Swan. In this approach, pressure is applied to the employers via a system of awards created to recognise progress in encouraging more male teachers. The higher awards are conditional upon actually increasing the number of male teachers in a school. Ultimately, financial sanctions are imposed for failing to reach these higher award levels. However, this hardly differs from “targets” and I am not saying I approve of such an approach. I certainly regard Athena Swan as an egregious institution. But more male teachers could be achieved if there was a will to do so. The report notes that the drop-out rate is particularly high for male trainee teachers. One wonders why. Is it an unfriendly atmosphere for men?

I note that the HEPI report fights shy of recommending an increase in male teachers on the grounds that the benefits have not been proved. This is an interesting double standard. Increasing female participation in STEM, in any capacity, is regarded as desirable per se. No societal benefit need be demonstrated.

As for the suggestion that the rebalancing of STEM subjects towards women might justify “some perverse behaviours like recruiting fewer students to ensure a high percentage for the less well-represented gender“, I’m sorry, that’s plain bonkers. So  you’d be content to disadvantage a large number of men, disadvantage industry which needs more engineers and technocrats, and disadvantage universities which require student numbers for their income – all to achieve a percentage figure, with no actual benefit to anyone? Get real.

The O Level – GCSE change in 1986/87 promoted a significant jump in gender differential in school attainment. But the rot is apparent from the earliest age. Boys as young as 7 already expect to do badly compared with girls, and girls agree with them. So it is not a matter merely of men in HE, the disadvantage works through the whole system, and primary schools are responsible as well as secondary schools.

The report wisely observes that,

Concentrating only on the earlier stages of the education system risks a sequence in which underachievement is blamed:

  • by higher education providers on colleges and secondary schools;
  • by secondary schools on primary schools; and,
  • by primary schools on early years’ providers and parents.

When blame bumps down the age spectrum, the end result is likely to be little change.”

True. But, the reality is that all these stages are affected by the prevailing cultural narrative. The educational establishments are the proximate cause, but the root cause is the nature of our society now.

Male disengagement with education does not originate entirely in schools. Boys and girls pick up the message of boys’ intellectual inferiority by osmosis in society at large, including at home. Feminists have long argued that negative stereotypes drive low expectations which drive low achievement. They may well be right – but seem strangely obtuse when it comes to applying the same argument to males. And if you think that negative stereotyping does not apply to boys – what planet have you been on for the last 45 years?

I must take the HEPI report to task for the unforgiveable sin of promulgating the very misandry which is at the heart of the problem. For example, we read,

Recognising the challenge (i.e., of male educational under-achievement) does not excuse the past under-representation of women. Nor does it excuse the challenges posed today to female students by ‘lad culture’ and to female staff by obstacle-laden promotion routes.”

It is hard to judge whether statements like this are merely attempts to appease the feminist lobby or are genuinely believed. But the authors seem not to be aware that the very use of a phrase like “lad culture” is part of the misandric narrative which lies at the root of male demotivation. We live in a society in which the Cambridge University Union can hold a debate on the motion, “This house believes that masculinity is damaging to everyone” – and pass the motion 51 votes to 19. This is a “lad culture”, is it? A culture which tells young men that they are intrinsically toxic?

Our culture now tells young men that they are dangerous to the very people, young women, with whom relationships once formed their principle motivation in life. For what, exactly, do you now expect men to strive? What’s the point? And what sort of self image do you expect young boys to have, given the all too obvious societal view of men which now prevails?

It is important to appreciate that the misandric narrative has been built primarily on untruths. Take, for example, the very first sentence of the HEPI report’s Executive  Summary…

After centuries of inequality in UK higher education benefiting men, there has been a reversal over the past three decades.”

and later they write,

Moreover, given the centuries of male dominance in higher education, there are few precedents from which to learn.”

When I hear phrases like “centuries of oppression” I reach for my gun. I doubt that one person in a thousand has any idea, for example, of the true history of universal suffrage in the UK. (certainly Sadiq Khan doesn’t).

The history of the common people can be summed up thus: the vast majority of people, of both sexes, lived appallingly harsh lives under the boot heel of a very small ruling elite. This was the case, to a greater or lesser extent, until around the mid-twentieth century. History is the struggle of the have-nots to ease their lives a little compared with the haves. And both the haves and the have-nots were of both sexes. The insistence on the primacy of gender in history is a feminist distortion of reality. Distressingly, almost everyone believes the feminist re-writing of history. Public perception is now largely a mythology. Let me illustrate this in the context of education. The graphs below show the educational attainment by males and females since year 1896 (averaged over OECD countries). They are taken from the OECD report The ABC of Gender Equality in Education.

The take-home message is that the difference between the sexes was never that marked. In 1896, 80%-85% of men and women had only primary level education.

These graphs show how misleading are statements like, “Historically, higher education in the UK was a male pursuit. In 1920, 72% of students obtaining a first degree were men.” I don’t doubt its truth, but this was a time when only ~1% of the population went to university. That is the salient fact: the distinction between the privileged few and the majority – not the gender issue. Even by 1970 in the UK, at the very start of second wave feminism, when there were twice as many men going to university as women, it was still only ~5% of the cohort going to university.

This distorted view of things is analogous to the popular conviction that, in the Victorian era “men had the vote and women did not”, when the truth is that, circa 1830, only a few percent of men had the vote. The constant reiteration that men were historically privileged compared with women is simply false as regards the overwhelming majority of men. Only the privileged few were privileged – of either sex.

OECD Average Trend in Years of Schooling: Genders Compared

OECD trend in schooling 20th century

OECD Average Trend in Highest Educational Attainment is Primary Level 

OECD primary as highest education

OECD Average Trend in Degrees: Genders Compared

OECD trend degrees

The last graph is interesting in that it shows that the stagnation in men obtaining degrees started in 1946. I’ll leave you to conjure with that date and what it implies (again noting this is for the OECD as a whole).

We should not forget the benefit to the State of encouraging more women into work, and particularly into higher paid jobs. The HEPI report notes that, “the private benefit of a degree, in terms of lifetime earnings net of tax and loan repayments, is large – in the order of £168k (£252k) for men (women) on average. The social benefit to the government is also large of the order of £264k (£318k) from men (women) graduates – far in excess of likely exchequer costs“. So, the State will naturally be even more keen on encouraging women to acquire degrees.

Male educational under-achievement is a symptom, not the disease. The underlying issue is the loss of the male role. The enormous changes in our society over the last half century have left men and boys increasingly unable to create or sustain a healthy collective identity. Nathanson and Young have argued that, to attain such a healthy collective identity, any group requires a role which is distinctive (i.e., unique to the group) as well as necessary. Only then will the group be publicly valued. Instead, we have Hillary Clinton telling us that “women can do anything men can. And do it better. And do it with one hand tied behind their backs“. She may soon be the most powerful person in the world, but her misandric message will not diminish.

Can male educational disadvantage be divorced from fatherlessness? Can fatherlessness be divorced from ideologically driven agendas which have promoted the idea that “it cannot be assumed that men are bound to be an asset to family life or that the presence of fathers in families is necessarily a means to social cohesion” (Harriet Harman)? Or, “women’s liberation, if it abolishes the patriarchal family, will abolish a necessary substructure of the authoritarian state” (Germaine Greer). When feminists are openly triumphalist about The End of Men and yet tell us to Man Up and adopt a HeForShe attitude, how long did you expect it to be before males got fed up with being feminists’ play dough?

There is a breed of feminist (and they tend to be the ones in positions of influence) that wants boys to fail – because they believe that anyone infected with the blight of masculinity deserves to fail.

The profound issue which the HEPI report ignores is why young men should want to go to university anymore. It is simply assumed that they must want to ‘succeed’. But what sort of ‘success’ is on offer exactly? Why should they want it?

Perhaps the best deal of all time was the traditional arrangement between the sexes. All men really asked for was respect, and in return they would live and, if necessary, die, for their wives and families. But this has been morphed into patriarchal oppression in the prevailing mythology. Now there is no respect for men, or boys. So why should they be motivated to strive? If they succeed, like Tim Hunt or Matt Taylor, there is no respect in it for them – for they have merely been the beneficiaries of privilege and advantage, so the narrative goes.

Add to this how badly the cards are stacked against men in intimate relationships – including the almost non-existent paternity rights – and why should men want to fulfil their traditional provider role anymore? Increasingly young men realise that their own needs are relatively modest. They do not have to be defined as “a person who produces more than he consumes”. Perhaps this HEPI report is the start of the establishment waking up to the fact that the feminist-driven policy of destroying the nuclear family now threatens the true engine of the economy: male effort.

Overall then, I welcome the HEPI report in as far as it highlights the issue of male educational disadvantage and challenges some of the false perspectives which dominate most public reports and policies on education. However, my congratulations are strongly muted because (in my opinion) the authors have not grasped the origin of the problem. The problem is certainly not confined to the HE sector but is propagated from the school level. So any intervention within educational establishments might be better targeted at the school level.

However, the more profound observation is that the problem does not originate solely within the educational system. The more serious problem lies with the increasingly misandric nature of our society. Ironically, all that is needed to motivate men is a reward of respect. But this is precisely what is denied men now. Until there is a change of cultural narrative, I’m afraid the measures proposed by the HEPI report are doomed to failure.

13 thoughts on “HEPI Report on Male Underachievement in Higher Education

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  6. disqus_QL05BqU79X

    Another fine, astute and admirably dispassionate take on the decades-old, systematic ruination of the non-élite male.

    Of course the career feminists (of both sexes) in the public service need boys and men to fail; developing and codifying a cruel and dangerous culture of male disadvantaging is the only route by which the feminist cult can enforce their insane version of “equality,” which is naturally no more than the enforced parity of social outcomes as prescribed by the tenets of Marxism. Women can only compete with men and appear to “win,” be “better” or “smarter” by crippling males as early in life as possible.

    What is most depressing is that, even if we could excise the cancer of feminism from all state state departments today, no positive benefit would be seen for another generation and things are getting worse daily. If the UK votes to remain in the vociferously-feminist EU in the upcoming referendum, males in our nation are pretty much done for a long time to come.

  7. AJ

    It is undoubtly true that the large and growing educational disadvantage of men is part of a much wider pattern of male disadvantage in society and is not simply the result of deficencies within the educational system. This does not mean that action should not be taken within the educational system to address it even if changes to education alone cannot eliminate the problem.

    Education is the foundation on which many of our lives are built and disadvantage at this stage will influence the rest of life from the available careers and therefore earnings, and then to health and life expectancy through that to health and life expectancy. Education undoubtedly also affects the broad consensus about the world and morality paticularily amongst the elite who set public policy. There is therefore positive feedback between attitudes towards men and anti-male sexism inculcated in the educational system, those who graduate from teh system and public policy. This will act to intensify these attitudes and resist change.

    The overt discrimination aganst men in teh system can at least be stopped. There are many public and private initiatives and programs to encourage girls into education, to study paticular courses and to boost participation and confidence. There are next to none for boys. Unequal treatment of this kind could simply be made illegal.

    Women’s centres and other specific support for women in universities should be illegal unless matched by corresponding boys centres. I would prefer that support is simply given to students in general without devisive gender discrimination but legislation can require equal treatment and univerities can decide for themselve show this is achieved.

    I am not sure the pernicous pseudo-science associated with gender and womens studies can be eliminated from universities without compromising academic independance but specific funding to investigate areas of male disadvantage could at leats create a counter weight and body of research which will be valuable in addressing the issues including education but also suicide, health and criminal justice differences.

    The gap between boys and girls performance in schools could be highlighted as a negative statistic reported for all schools thereby encouraging schools to do something about it.

    All of these things just within the educational system woudl start to mae a difference.

  8. Mark Brooks

    This is a brilliant article and thank you for the research and the links.

    The response from the Government on this BBC site shows there is complete denial in Whitehall and Westminster about boys underachievement in terms of real action: Universities Minister Jo Johnson said: “While we are seeing record application rates from disadvantaged backgrounds, this report shows that too many are still missing out.

    “That is why our recent university access guidance for the first time called for specific support for white boys from the poorest homes.”

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  10. Groan

    As always an excellent dissection of the topic. I too am please that report got done. Has a foreword from someone who is in a position the raise the issues. I found the report through a BBC web report which stunned me, in that it related the issues and even included the opinion of the Head of UCAS that the lack of male teachers in the school system must be an issue. I really can’t recall anything from the BBC that gives such information such straight coverage. As you say we really are only at the beginning of this issue entering public, and importantly political elite consciousness.


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