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 63.

    Poor white boys would rather avoid the debts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Maybe they don't want to go into debt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Cheddy #40 is right. We don't value technical skills enough. Rather, comprehensive education has imposed an academic straightjacket on all young people instead of nurturing differences: in aptitude, capability, learning style etc. We don't want to label young people too early but we need more variety in the education offered so that all achieve the best they can.

    NB Ebacc will NOT promote this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    No. The government should bring back grammar schools to improve standards, and introduce vouchers that cover the cost of state education to pay for all or part of the cost of private education. They shouldn't force anyone to take anyone, instead they should raise state school standards so it's not an issue.
    It would cover the course cost, cost of accommodation, food and utilities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Many contributors presume that a degree should automatically lead to a well paid job. THAT IS THE CASE IF THE DEGREE IS IN A SUBJECT THAT ENABLES THE GRADUATE IS ABLE TO ROLL UP HIS/HER SLEEVES TO MAKE A POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION TO UK PLC.
    Degrees in most arts subjects do not do that! Unless, of course, they manage the doers in life! e.g. health service, civil service, etc. i.e. create chaos!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    As a current engineering student, I think we should stop all of the 'pointless' degrees, people are just going to university to put off searching for a job for 3 years. With the labour regime everyone went to university making it harder for us studying for real degrees to find jobs. Then the people with pointless degrees think that working in McDonalds is below them, encouraging immigration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I have a son at university, completing his course this year with £27,000 of debt. His tutors are encouraging him to stay on to do a PhD. How do we fund this?
    Student loans are not avaialble for post graduate study.
    I don't have the cash, (I'm neither rich nor poor).
    His sister has applied for this year. What support I can give should now go to her.
    So he will be leaving. Well done Mr Willets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    There should be no other reason but talent, to get you into university. The system should then nurture that talent. But unfortunately the system doesn't work like that, unless you have the means to pay for that talent to be nurtured.
    Change the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    White "working class boys" are smart enough to know that you must be stupid to go to university and come away with a degree (that in no way differentiates you from the crowd) PLUS £30,000 of debt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    If employers promoted from their ranks instead of graduates only, the route to a 'better' job would make university uneccessary for those unwilling to take on a huge debt. This was once the way things were done. Now only accounting and law still give access to a well paid profession through this route.
    Employers can provide alternative ways so poor boys can work their way through training.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Here's some other things white working class males don't do: have a ciggie in the pub, go to the football on a saturday, have a job (or if they do have, one they can take pride in and they are paid a fair wage for).

    Think I'll buy a lotto ticket on my way to queue for the xfactor auditions (you'll all be able to laugh at how terrible I am when its on telly)

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Young lads are put off education at an early age by the ongoing feminisation of our education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    "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."

    If you are going to increase the cost of tuition by a factor of 3 it will come as no surprise that there will be fewer takers Mr. Willets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    It is pointless banging the university drum for as long as you have to be very well-off to go there. It would seem that having made university too expensive to attend the great and good are getting bothered at the outcome.

    The solution is to change the policy: bring back grants, bring back proper apprenticeships, bring back full employment, bring back proper wages and salaries.

    What went wrong?

  • Comment number 49.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The 54000 individuals who have chosen not to go to University accrue £75000 of debt and still stand a 1 in 5 chance of finding themselves Unemployed afterwards have made an entirely rational decision.

    In the 70's I went to a Top UK University from my Local Comprehensive with a full grant and no fees.
    I wouldn't have done so if I thought I would be up to my ears in debt when I graduated

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    So, white working class boys are "poor boys" according to the BBC. That's funny because I'm a working class white 21 year old and I am definatly not poor! Your ignorance sickens me and your story title is borderline offensive. Second, perhaps these "poor boys" do not wish to go to university as the work they choose does not require it/prefer to go to college and get practicle skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Coming from a working class family I feel that it will be beyond our means to enable my son to attend university. He is bright and academically minded but we are on average incomes and would not qualify via “the free school meals” route. Universities will be full of the poor and well-off with those in the middle missing out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I think it would be best to re-introduce grammar schools for the academically minded an prepare them for uni, then technical schools for the scientifically minded and then vocational schools to teach the basics of maths and english and to prepare for apprenticeships/polytechnic (which should be bought back). The education system should realise a degree isn't always the best option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    The problem starts well before university... perhaps the government should be forcing top secondary education institutions like Eton to take more students from working class backgrounds?


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