Working class boys are a minority group

The interpretation and misinterpretation of facts and statistics can often lead to different, and sometimes wrong, conclusions. The principal of Hertford College, Will Hutton, also the chair of the Independent Commission on Fees, recently announced that ‘higher fees may be having a disproportionate impact on men,’ who, in his opinion, ‘are already under-represented at university.’ This echoes David Willetts’ suggestion, in January, to include white, working class boys as a target group for recruitment in university access agreements, along with ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But how much should universities be made to artificially adjust the applications procedure to account for range of socio-economic limiting factors which are a sad reality in our society?

Hutton’s recent statements takes its cue from the fact that the proportion of working-class boys who took places fell by 1.4% between 2010 and 2012, in response to the sharp rise in tuition fees. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the prospect of going to university has become less realistic, as well as desirable for many, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Whether supported by a means-tested student finance loan for tuition and living cost or reliant on family support, scholarships and bursaries, most people are thinking twice before applying to a UK university. But even before the fee rise, there were some identifiable inequalities in terms of the number of ethnic minority applicants to university (let alone how many places were won). Similarly, the fact that even in secondary education, girls tended (and continue) to outperform boys, makes this 1.4 decrease of male working-class background applicants less surprising.

The Independent commission on Fees began collecting details about the backgrounds of hundreds of thousands of successful university applicants in September 2010. Men from ‘deprived backgrounds’ who accepted places at university fell by 1.4% over two years, while the proportion of women applicants from the same deprived backgrounds rose by 0.9% in the same period. The conclusion draw from these facts, was that a ‘worrying gender gap,’ was emerging as a consequence of the massive fee rise.

How, though, should we react to the fact that the higher tuition fees are putting off working class boys? If working class boys were treated as a target group for the purposes of the admissions procedure, could this not tip the balance too far in favour of male applicants? After a few years, might we not see a similar initiative to encourage working class girls to apply to university? And what of the new seven-tier class system which we are now supposed to judge one another by? Of all the questions this brings to mind, to me, the most crucial one is how one would define a working class boy? Would there be a list of schools in deprived areas? Would all applicants have to be means tested by UCAS and then, as a consequence, the middle and upper class male applicants would suffer (though very marginally). Would the applicants’ family histories be taken into account? (Perhaps if the prospective student would become the first male family member to attend university, they would be part of that target group). The Commission considered applicants from areas among the 40% most under-privileged in England as coming from deprived areas. But could this category not be too broad? An applicant from among the 10% most under-privileged in England has significantly less opportunities, one might assume, than someone at the higher end of that ‘privilege scale.’

The main issue here, then, is not necessarily that there is no problem – Will Hutton has obviously identified an inequality which needs to be addressed. But the danger, which is all too real, is that tertiary education is run like a colour by numbers book of quotas and targets – where everyone must fit into a box. There is a need for statistics – and the continued monitoring by the Independent Commission of the gender gap among applicants from an under-privileged background, I would hope, is welcomed by all.

David Willetts’ suggestion that white working-class boys be included as a new target group, while it follows the logic of the inclusion of ethnic minority groups etc, cannot hope to offer a lasting improvement as it is an artificial mechanism. What of the plight of applicants that don’t easily fit into any of the categories? Should a working class white male be who is more or less as skilled as a competitor who is not in a target group, be given the place based on his social background? Surely this is a move in the wrong direction. There must be a better way to reverse the trend of working-class boys deciding not to apply to universities.

Perhaps the answer to this problem does not lie hidden beneath the growing pile of statistical information, but in a simple publicity campaign – universities, and indeed schools, should do more to encourage boys in all social classes to apply to university by visiting universities, and getting inspired. Perhaps, though, we should not react to these figures quite so extremely – who knows, in a few years, in the absence of intervention, these statistics might re-adjust, and equilibrium closer to the 50/50 gender split might be reached. Whatever happens, I am sure Will Hutton will be better placed to judge the issue than many.