Willetts: White working class boys missing out on university

University graduates In general, fewer men than women are applying to university

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Universities in England should be doing more to encourage applications from white working class boys, Universities Minister David Willetts says.

The group could be targeted in the same way as other disadvantaged groups, he told The Independent.

Boys are now out-numbered at university by girls.

And the final figures for those going to university in the UK last autumn showed a bigger drop in applications from boys than girls.

Girls are more likely to apply to university than boys and more likely to get places at the most selective institutions.

Mr Willetts says there is a "shocking waste of talent" among some young people not going to university.

He told The Independent that the Office for Fair Access (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".

Offa is charged with making sure universities in England set themselves targets to increase applications and take-up of places from disadvantaged groups.

'Shocking waste of talent'

Speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio Four, Mr Willetts said while it was up to universities to decide who to admit, they could be doing more to help teenagers from poorer backgrounds to make the grade, for example by inviting them back for repeated summer schools, to raise their chances of getting good A-levels.

"There are groups that are under-performing. There is a shocking waste of talent of some young people that could really benefit from university that aren't going there," he said.

Start Quote

I do worry about what looks like increasing under-performance by young men”

End Quote David Willetts Universities Minister

The final figures for last autumn's university intake in the UK show a fall in applications from men which was four times that among women.

Just 30% of male school-leavers applied to university for autumn 2012, compared to 40% of female school-leavers, according to Ucas.

Mr Willetts told The Independent this was "the culmination of a decades-old trend in our education system which seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning... That is a challenge for all policymakers and parties."

He added: "I do worry about what looks like increasing under-performance by young men."

Mr Willetts told Today universities in England had been told to spend about a third of the money they gained through increased tuition fees on "reaching out and improving access " and that this amounted to "hundreds of millions of pounds".

"We want to see that used as effectively as possible," he said.

The poor performance of many white working class boys in schools is something that has been highlighted in the past, particularly by England's schools watchdog Ofsted.

Results of national tests known as Sats taken by 10 and 11-year-olds in England show that children on free school meals do less well than their classmates, and the pattern continues to GCSE level.

Last year just 66% of those known to be eligible for free school meals reached the expected level in English and maths, compared with 82% of all other pupils.

Just 60% of white British boys on free school meals reached that level, while 68% of black British boys did so.

Social engineering

Universities generally say that the under-representation of certain groups at university is mostly because they are not getting the qualifications needed while at school.

Universities do run summer schools and other programmes aimed at encouraging applications from disadvantaged groups, but some politicians and campaigners would like them to do more.


It is well known that many children on free school meals in England do much worse in school than their classmates who are not. They often start school with lower skills than other children and many never catch up.

A lesser-known fact is that among these, white British boys do worse than any other main group.

Just over a third of teenagers on free school meals get five good GCSEs including maths and English; the national average is 58%. Among poor white boys, just a quarter make that grade, closing the door to A-levels and university for many.

The gap between poor white boys and other pupils has widened since 2006, as achievements have risen overall.

British black Caribbean boys on free school meals have improved faster and have closed the achievement gap, but still only one third of them reach the expected level at 16.

But any suggestion that universities should be made to admit teenagers with lower grades than others because of their background can be met by accusations of "social engineering".

Universities say they do take applicants' background and potential in to account when deciding on places.

Academics represented by the University and College Union say they agree that more needs to be done "to convince certain groups that university is for them" - but say poorer teenagers will be put off by increased tuition fees.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: "We need our brightest people pursuing their dreams.

"However, a host of recent government policies have made university a far more expensive option and the drop off in student applications suggests the increased price is a factor."

The government says no one should be put off going to university by finance because fees are not paid up-front and teenagers from poorer homes qualify for bursaries and loans to cover their living costs.

Figures out on Thursday from Ucas show a 6.3% fall in university applications from 18-year-olds in the UK compared with the same time last year. England and Wales show the biggest falls.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Normally I'm in favour of the consumer paying rather than the state, but I think for true meritocracy, everyone needs a level playing field, so this is one rare thing that I believe should be subsidised for all. I do think some should revert to polytechnics, and that the stupid target of 50% to go to uni should be scrapped, so that a degree becomes worth more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    It has been known for years that white British working class people are discriminated against in this country.
    All political parties have adopted a policy of picking up the potential floating voter if they are of an ethnic or foreign background. Now it is time that we ordinary citizens of Great Britain told the politicians that we have had enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    "I am staggered....."

    If it was just about fees then poor girls and poor boys would apply at the same rate. But the story says that more girls apply than boys. So what's different for the boys?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    In 1957, I was a "poor boy," the first in my family ever to go to university. I demonstrated my capacity, and generous local and State aid made it possible (London, Oxford, and three degrees).. That aid no longer exists. The Minister is astonished at falling numbers? He could obviously use a little education himself -- in cause and effec.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Whilst agree with the general tenet of the argument insofar as the white population have for years been disadvantaged in all spheres of our society at the expense of non whites, they should only go to Uni if they are capable and there should be no dumbing down - as in state schools - to allow this to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I don't see why any group should be given special rights over another. I think it would be best to give everyone a non-means tested university voucher that could pay for a course at a university, college etc and then stop telling institutions that their makeup should be an exact scaled-down version of society

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    There are 3 ways of paying for university education:-

    1) the State
    2) the student
    3) both the above

    As with funding of the railways, the balance is being pushed back towards the consumer, and away from the tax payer.

    Tuition Fees do not, of themselves, prevent poorer people going to university, but they probably do focus minds on what is important, rather than Blair's "let em all go" approach

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    12.Some Lingering Fog
    A university education used to mean something. Now every Tom, Dick and Harriet can get one.
    John Major made every polytech and college that wanted a 'university'.
    Kids can go to a university, but it's not the same as going 25 years ago. That's the main reason why kids struggle for work when they leave some Unis. All the Russell Group grads still have no trouble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I came from a poor background, but was bright so managed to get a place in Uni, back in the 90s.

    Now the Fib Dems have brought in excessive tuition fees, uni is for rich people only.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    SO White British Boys, the most under-performing group at secondary are not interested in uni. Until there is a viable alternative to School with valid opportunities the all ministers who tell em what to do will get the 2 finger salute.

    High fees = fewer grads no decent jobs = lost ambition where is the teamwork dfe ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    At one university I went to, women outnumbered men seven to one. At another, the overwhelming majority were ethnic minorities, mostly female, and that included the staff. I and the handful of other white men on the course seemed to be treated with an air of distrust and confusion as to why I was even there. People should be there PURELY on a meritocratic basis, not PC quota rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    A university education used to mean something. Now every Tom, Dick and Harriet can get one.

    They aren't really missing out on anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    After years of positive discrimation biased towards woman - isn't it time that the balance was addressed. It is becoming endemic - at all ages - even where I work we have course that only woman can go on to propel them into manager positions. No such course exists for men.
    Stop all discrimation now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    So working class boys do worse than working class girls? Sounds more like a question of attitude rather than disadvantage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The idea of tuition fees is to put people off going to university - an educated populace is a dangerous thing. Cambridge and Oxford have been very good at making people think its pointless to apply - although when I see the 'elite' they're churning out to run everything and what a mess they're making of it, maybe they're not as greats seats of learning as they make out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "Boys are now out-numbered at university by girls."

    Surely that's a huge incentive for boys then ? Think about it !

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    If you wanted to go to uni but didn't check out edX it offers online courses as they would be taught in their respective unis, they are only individual modules but there are plenty to choose from, you only have to pay a modest amount for the certificate but I think some are still completely free to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Mr. Willets is supposed to have '2 brains' isn't he ?! I am staggered that he thus cannot work out that his trebling of the fees doesn't have anything to do with poor, working class kids not going to university ! This on a day when numbers applying overall are down again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I'd love to go to University, unfortunately though, I'm too worried about the ridiculous cost of it, and a lot of people I know are still struggling to find decent work, years after graduation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    You can "encourage" any section of society you like.

    Whether they can afford it or not, is a different matter.


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