A government minister is calling for white, working-class boys to be categorised alongside ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged communities when universities look to attract students.
University minister David Willetts’ suggestion comes against a backdrop of a drastic fall in the number of university applications from men.
Just 30 per cent of male school-leavers applied to university in 2012, compared to 40 per cent of female school-leavers, says the admissions body Ucas. According to the Independent, the figures from last autumn’s intake show a 54,000 fall in men applying to university – 13 per cent down on 2011, and four times higher than the reduction in women applicants.
But Mr Willetts singled out working class white males in remarks to the press on the latest figures.
He told the Independent that the Office for Fair Access (Offa), the university access watchdog, “can look at a range of disadvantaged groups – social class and ethnicity, for instance – when it comes to access agreements, so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys”.
Mr Willetts said he would suggest the inclusion of white, working-class boys as a target group for recruitment in university access agreements, which universities have to sign to gain permission to charge higher fees, in a meeting with Professor Les Ebdon, the director of Offa.
Mr Willetts told Channel 4 News the statistics showed a need to focus on young men. “In addition, you’ve got people from low income backgrounds whole are less likely to apply and think of going to university. We can’t afford the waste of talent.”
But he ruled out quotas and said he was keen to protect universities’ rights to select students. He instead called them to spend the extra hundreds of million pounds available for improving access on more ambitious outreach projects including linking to local schools and more targeted and intensive summer schools.
Offa told Channel 4 News that it works with universities to agree a list of measures to improve inclusion that are focused on particular groups that are under-represented at each university.
These vary from university to university, but the institution must carry out the agreed programme to be allowed to set their annual tuition fees to anything higher than £6,000 per student.
Resources for participation are not specifically targetted towards white working class people, but Offa has suggested raising participation levels amongst under represented social economic groups, care leavers, people with disabilities and some ethnic minority groups.
Offa said it does not require institutions to set themselves targets relating to gender but are happy for them to do so where appropriate.
But the regulator insisted that with no single, ideal measure or indicator of disadvantage it expected each university or college to take a balanced view.
Offa director Les Ebdon said: “Universities and colleges make their own decisions about whom they admit. They also choose their own access agreement measures and targets, in line with their own particular mission and challenges.
“These measures and targets must be agreed with me, as the independent regulator, and I’m happy for them to include ethnicity, social class and gender where appropriate.
“Evidence to date indicates that one of the most successful ways to improve fair access to higher education is for universities and colleges to reach out to schools and communities where low numbers of people go to higher education.
Joseph Carey, a volunteer with the mentoring charity City Year, was one of the first in his family to go to university.
He now mentors students at an inner city school for boys in north London and recognises a lot of the same issues that he faced as a white, working class teenager, growing up close to Gatwick Airport.
“There’s one particular child who I work with, who just drags his feet. He’s capable of achieving but he’s so certain that he wants to work in a factory like his Dad.”
But he also sees these attitudes in some of the other ethnic groups within the school, which he puts down to a sense of “loyalty” and a lack of positive male role models.
The City Year volunteers work with students from all background to raise their aspirations and to support teachers’ own efforts. Their work at the William Ellis school has been praised by Ofsted, particular for its effect on white, working class boys.
While many of Joseph’s friends were eager to get a job rather than to go on to higher education, his decisions were influenced by the experiences of his older siblings.
He said the fact that they could have gone to university, but did not fulfil their potential inspired him to go on to higher education. “I thought that this was an opportunity to show that someone with my surname, from my background could go to university,” he explained.
“This might be, for example, through summer schools, mentoring or master classes, and needs to happen over a number of years and from an early age.”
Education charity, the Sutton Trust, which researches participation rates in higher education, as well as organising its own summer schools, said there is a general problem with low take-up of education opportunities amongst young males.
The trust’s director of programmes, James Turner, said: “We find that boys are outnumbered by two to one on our summer school programme,” he said. “Also, some ethnic minority groups are more likely to come forward to take up support offered by universities and charities.”
Mr Turner said its research suggested that outreach programmes were effective, delivering a £15 return on every £1 of investment. But he added that universities could do more in admissions, for example giving more weight to contextual data when offering places.
He said this could mean selecting a working class boy with three As from an challenging inner-city state school over a boy from a more privileged background with the same grades.
The trust has estimated there are 3,000 state school pupils who have the grades but do not get the places at our country’s top universities and its call for a greater use of contextual data has been backed by the government’s social mobility tsar, the former Labour MP Alan Milburn.