Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all: or why men aren’t a disadvantaged group in HE

In 2013, the then Universities Minister, David Willetts, called for white working class boys to be “treated like an ethnic minority” when it came to widening participation initiatives in universities. Mary Curnock Cook, head of UCAS, got in on the act too, claiming that men are “beginning to look more like the disadvantaged group” when it comes to university admissions to the Commons business select committee the same year.

It doesn’t seem to have gone away. UCU is very keen to guard that final HE biscuit, with the mindboggling recommendation that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) should add ’males’ to its list of target groups and include this in annual guidance to the sector. Why? Because their December 2014 report on young people’s perceptions of post-18 education and training options showed that 65% young men wanted to progress into HE, compared to 74% women. Today’s announcement from UCAS that the admission gap between men and women has widened also brought with it a flurry of concern. Not least from Million+, who stated via twitter that men’s participation gap needed to be closed. You can’t argue with the statistics, right? But you can argue with the conclusions and you can challenge where the weight and ideology of the evidence lies.

The aforementioned UCAS research, which calls for a parity of esteem between vocational and academic pathways post-18 (and quite right too), also show that 46% of young men said they are likely to start an apprenticeship following their schooling, compared to just 36% of young women. It seems pressing to point out that ‘women’ don’t feature on OFFA’s list of target groups either.

UCAS’ data shows a much more complex picture for HE than counting the number of women and the number of men participating, and it’s just that – raw data. UCAS have released no commentary accompanying it. Yet in the headline summaries, there features no mention that men outnumber women in engineering and computer sciences, while women are concentrated in education and the social sciences.

There’s no mention made of HESA data from 2009, that shows that while the majority of students in HE are women, they make up less than half of students’ found in the top 10 of 2008’s Good University Guide. Nor how they comprise under 40% of the global research student population. No one is talking about women’s graduate salaries – over her working life, even taking into account subject choice, time off for childbirth and other variable factors, a woman can still expect to earn 5% less than the man sat in the chair next to her in her lecture theatre.

At its simplest, it’s a misunderstanding of how privilege and oppression functions in society, a simplification of the widening participation agenda to who steps foot in the door, and a poor use of statistics. At its most insidious, it’s an obscuring of class relations and an attempt to pit the monolith of Woman against the monolith of the Working Class.  It reminds me of the following joke – There’s a banker, a brickie and an unemployed man sat at a table. On the table is a plate of 10 biscuits. The banker takes 9 of them, nudges the brickie and says, “Watch him mate – he’s trying to steal your biscuit.”

Creating a democratic and inclusive education is not about looking at de-contextualised statistics and attempting to create a higher education system that exactly mirrors the demographics of society – the issue is not statistical, it is political. It should not have to be said that gendered, raced and classed privileges are produced, reproduced and reinforced in higher education. Higher education does not exist in a vacuum, but if it were to, it would be one reflective of the richest, the whitest and the male. It would be a vacuum that ensures that the elite in society benefit from economic, cultural and social capital at the expense of the many. As Valerie Solanas said, “The purpose of higher education is not to educate but to exclude as many as possible from the various professions”. But I think we can and we do ask more of higher education, and that is why it matters. I think that higher education is a complex and contested site with the potential to disrupt dominant narratives of power; that academics, teachers and students working together to create holistic, progressive education can change higher education as we know it, and through that change the world.

Yes, class is still the biggest determinant in a young person’s ability to access higher education, and yes, young white working class men are right near the bottom of the pile when it comes to benefiting from the current education system – but we must begin to recognise and unpack the complex intersections between race, class and gender, and look at how these produce multiple formations of inequality, exclusion and disadvantage. Put simply – women are not to blame for the lack of white working class men in higher education – class oppression is. Until we recognise that, all we will do is set disempowered groups against each other as a useful way to avoid anyone paying attention to the bankers taking all of the biscuits.

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