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How do we support young men in higher education?

Published: 12/05/2016

Understanding the nuances of underrepresentation and achievement levels is key, says ECU’s Gary Loke.

GaryL websiteHEPI’s report published today Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education – and how to start tackling it  focuses on issues of underrepresentation of men in higher education, lower levels of retention and lower likelihood of securing a top degree than women.

The report highlights that there are ‘few detailed studies of the problem and almost no clear policy recommendations on what to do about it’. The authors also found that ‘only two higher education institutions currently have a specific target to recruit more male students’ and call for this to be rectified.


The report calls for a collaborative approach across the Department of Education and BIS, schools, higher education and wider society in tackling representative recruitment for young men and other groups. This issue is endemic throughout the whole education system, starting well down the chain. However, this doesn’t mean that higher education can’t do more to alleviate the issue.


We know from our own research (Male students: engagement with academic and pastoral support services 2012) that overall, male students are less aware of the services on offer, less likely to use them, less likely to rate them positively and less likely to assess the impact of using them on their lives to be positive than female students. In many cases, the differences between men and women are relatively small, but they are consistent and systematically reflect more limited male engagement with services. Therefore any initiatives or interventions should take this into account when targeting or developing services and/or course structures and support.


It is important to understand that a complex range of factors have an impact on degree attainment, and without a nuanced picture of the intersection of a number of characteristics alongside gender, we will not be able to focus support and outreach work where it is most needed. ECU’s annual statistical reports highlight the stark gendered, racial and disability issues in degree attainment – it is not necessarily only young white men who should be the focus when the picture is complex, and we have to carefully consider the intersection of social economic status as part of this complex picture.

For example, 55.0% of white female students receive a 2:1 compared to 50.9% of white male students. However, this was a higher proportion than for Black men (37.5%), Asian men (45.2%), Chinese men (43.6%) and mixed race (46.1%). [See figure 5.13 Equality in HE: statistical report 2015: Part 2: Students]. Black disabled men are less likely to be awarded a 2:1 (39.0%) than white disabled men (51.4%), and again the proportions for Asian and Chinese disabled men are also lower. [See figure 5.11 Equality in HE: statistical report 2015: Part 2: Students].

What is crucial in addressing attainment issues is to ensure that structural issues are addressed, and not to see certain groups as having ‘weak performance’. It is important to move away from a deficit model, something the NUS has also noted.

How to make a difference

Work ECU and HEA have undertaken in Scotland into underrepresentation of different groups at subject level have separately underlined that a prescriptive methodological approach is inappropriate for such nuanced issues. If we are to truly make a difference, initiatives need to be evidence-based, take into account local context, and be continuously evaluated – without this they are unlikely to be successful.

It is also vital to understand that there are no quick fixes here – initiatives need to be long-term if they are to be successful. The Scottish government, for example, has adopted a long term approach when developing its gender action plan, with objectives running up to 2030. Through our Attracting Diversity project in Scotland, and the just launched a sister project in England Increasing diversity: recruiting students from underrepresented groups, we are supporting higher education institutions (and colleges in Scotland) to pilot initiatives for two years, using a theory of change methodology. We are sure that in time, these projects will provide some really useful context-specific insights into what works.

As a member of the UUK social mobility action group, these are all issues that are at the forefront of my mind, and ECU’s work will no doubt contribute to addressing the many complex issues around equality in the student lifecycle.

Gary Loke is Head of Policy for ECU.