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 263.

    Has anyone done a study to determine how many "white working class boys" actually want to go to university? This obsession with academia has been created by Governments of both colours because there are insufficient real jobs that the WORKING class actually want to take up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    The only entry criteria should be the demonstrated ability to learn and think independently and a motivation to develop one's mind and personality. All of that can be assessed by some combination of A-level achievement/entry exams/interviews. It cannot be assessed by a person's colour, race or perceived 'class'. Politicians may be obsessed by such things but universities should steer clear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    So much has been invested into university education that a degree has become almost devalued. I strongly believe that a variety of opportunities need to be available to our youth so all can meet their potential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    Spain did a wonderful job on education when they were the great Empire.
    The free schools who trained the Empire builders were given over to the rich,the Empire failed as after their great education could not be bothered with it.
    Sounds just like here at the moment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    255 tony

    Sorry but your point was clear, unlike your thinking. It was, in summary, poor kids / people should know their place and not attempt to rise above it ... references to manure always being manure. My example seems to disprove, not support, your point. I'll give you one thing ... you certainly don't seem short of manure yourself. In fact you speak HS very fluently.

  • Comment number 258.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Let's leave the uni education to the rich. It's that diluted now it's practically worthless anyway. Let the rich squander their money and then be the one's without jobs after receiving their dumbed down degrees. It's a true testament to how "clever" the rich really are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    How about "blind" entrance exams for ALL universities?

    Those admitted (the brightest) get full state funding

    No more "daddy bought" degrees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    246. Anglerfish
    235 tony

    'So why waste university space on those already registered for a lesser life?'

    Was out at the weekend for a meal: 2 headteachers, a doctor, a solicitor, two accountants. Why? Bit of a reunion for six kids from the back streets,
    You appear to prove my point. Congratulations on reaching middle class status.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Why does this surprise anyone? If something is priced beyond the means of some people then obviously they will have to go without.
    It is such a pity that talented people (which would be a great benefit to this Country) are being denied an education in this way. University places should be awarded on merit not the ability to pay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    This is just another example of the racist culture of modern Britain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    We need to make a change. The majority of engineering professors in universities are using ready-made machines and equipment for their researches. Such knowledge is not helpful for job prospects and our economy. One of my engineering friends who built a revolutionary machine and granted for international patent, but his university made him redundant. This is a big lost for our nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    245 stepee

    'I think grammar schools should be re-instated.'

    Why do we never see anyone saying 'I think secondary moderns should be re-instated?

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    Unless we sort all this muddle out there will be no jobs,NHS benefits or future.
    The sooner our Goverment starts talking sense the better,or we will all suffer from history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    I think kids with the best IQ's should get into University regardless of gender/race. Having said that I think going to University is a big con and most would be better off going straight to work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    241. Chubby1

    ''...So why waste university space on those already registered for a lesser life?...''

    I agree, a good education can be wasted, your comments are a clear example of this.
    How kind of you to agree with me. Most reassuring, A Bailliol man pergaps

  • Comment number 247.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    235 tony

    'So why waste university space on those already registered for a lesser life?'

    Was out at the weekend for a meal: 2 headteachers, a doctor, a solicitor, two accountants. Why? Bit of a reunion for six kids from the back streets, outside toilets, hand me down clothes, dads in low paid manual work (or dead). If only we'd had you to advise us on our aspirations and dreams when we were kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    I think grammar schools should be re-instated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    223 Tony...

    You appear class conscious...I`m conscious that some have no class..


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