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 143.

    134.Colin Smith
    "Anybody who says the new fees are putting them off is a fool who has not looked into how the fees work."

    When your parents only earn £12000 per year then £9000 per year for fees "appears" a massive amount to you.
    If your parents earn £1000000 per year then £9000 appears chicken feed.
    Its about perception.
    Therefore rich kids go and poor kids do not.
    Simple really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    The student loan isn't a proper debt.

    Mine is around £13K at the moment and I have never once been chased for payment... despite not paying between 2006-7 whilst I was job hunting...

    I get a statement every year telling me how much I still owe. Nothing more.

    Try racking up £13K on credit cards and see if there's any real comparison...

    Has anyone here actually been chased by the SLC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    We have totally lost a sense of proportion between University and Vocational training. All the prestige and branding goes behind a University education whereas far more rewarding for many young people (and a lot better investment for many in view of the high cost of University) is a vocational career - but we are failing to brand and sell vocational qualifications as something of high status.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Why don't we have a scheme where you pay proportionally to your income if you got a higher salary from going to university. If it was set at 1% for 25 years say, then those who got very good jobs would pay more. Too simple? Instead we have a system where people are told by media and MP's that you have lots of debt. The rich pay it for their kids, the poor decide not to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    One has to be very brave to take on that level of debt by the age of 21...how does one ever repay it unless from a well heeled or well connected family?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    I would submit that this BBC article is actually about boys underperforming girls at 'A'-level as they have done since about the mid 90's.

    115. Killer Boots Man -

    Maybe you could have worked harder and paid your fees on time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    @131. widgeon

    "Recruiting employers resent anyone more educated than they are"

    That's true in many cases, I've been to a few interviews in the past where its clear I haven't got the job because the boss whats someone thicker then them lol, otherwise they would get rumbled as being shysters!

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    At £9000 per year, Thats government policy is it not ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Universities in England should be doing more to encourage applications

    What nonsense.

    So, more applicants just result in more rejections because the endemic failure is EDUCATION STANDARDS.

    If you havent got exam grades then you dont get in & most dont even bother applying due to not having required grades.

    If theres a failure, surely its careers advisors failing

  • Comment number 134.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    There is a lot more to life than going to a university, a lot go to escape home and P against walls with no ambition other tha to do this and leave with nothing! Might as well do as I did, do an apprenticeship continue your education at home, and still succeed and make a an excellent future for yourself without university studying for a poor degree in a nondescript degree and still be unemployed

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    If you're working-class and go to university, you become de facto middle-class and so do your children. People who are "working-class" after thirty years of university expansion are not going to university by choice. Stop patronizing them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    I'm white working class. I went to university and only ever got call centre and clerical jobs anyway. Recruiting employers resent anyone more educated than they are. If I'd known when I was 18 what I know now I would have stayed on the estate and on benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    58 How would an arts student or media studies student compete for an engineering job with you? They won't not unless you plan on wasting the engineering degree by going into banking or other such occupation where they can compete with your qualifications and skills.
    Most people did not attend university - less than half do , so the most people don't and never have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Normally someone is complaning about ethnic "minorities" being under represented. Is the pendulum swinging the other way now?

    But why the obsession with race, gender, sexuality, etc, with every form that is filled in? Even when I had to phone the police the other day, the call handler asked what ethnic group I was! Country is a madhouse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    This isn't new. Middle class kids TEND to have more supportive parents, a room to themselves, back up and supportive parents, parents who can support them at university, buy houses, etc. so the debt worries are less. It's hardly a suprise. I would expect better off parents to resist anything that might stop their children getting the university places.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    When I was 16 I was very poor, poorly educated & there was no guidance. I had know idea what to do when I left school. At 16 my dad was in prison and my mum stacked shelves, today there still in the same situation!.15 years later & 6 years of study + short courses at college things are going well, but the lack of information available to me from the school at 16 was none existent, more support!

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    A 1970s headmaster was sacked for pointing out what this minister has just said,fired by Bradford Council.
    They were favouring ethnic minorities then,and the Head spoke out against the unfairness to white kids!
    He was fired,things got much worse thanks to Labour Immigration dogma.Now another politician has to point out the obvious.
    Sad for education and white boys!

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    My son decided to go to university this year after working for a year. He made a considered decision to go and I hope it pays off for him. I don't know much about the student loan / grant qualifications but we do not qualify for anything above the minimum and it's a struggle.

    In contrast some of his friends whose parents are unemployed seem to be getting everything paid for!

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    I'm middle class I guess & went straight to work instead of uni as I didn't want the debts. A middle class mate went, now has debts and a low paid job plus commuting to London. A working class mate did an electricians apprenticeship, is an honest hard-working tradesman (not a cowboy), earns twice what I do & 4 times my Uni-London working mate. Good luck gov!


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