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 283.

    re231 Jo
    You do not seem to understand how 'teaching' in universities is undertaken. The notion that a student must be constantly in a lecture room being 'taught' is quite an old fashioned view. If your son just regards his 12 hours of lectures as sufficient to get a degree then he is going to get a poor degree. He needs to get his act together and do some work in his own time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    If you have well off parents you will have a big advantage over children of poor parents all through life (in general) and your education acheivement will probably in grades be better. How good you are at thinking may be different. Or perhaps working class people are just mentally inferior, and richer people have more intelligent children?

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    270 Tony

    Are you suggesting that modern UK Universities..see their raison d`etre is as glorified finishing schools..?

    Leaving aside your query on cultural and leadership prep......it`s right to acknowledge that our top uni`s recieve state funding....you agree I take it...your Ad hominem assertion about rich daddies funding Uni`s to stay at the top had no veracity ...did it ..?

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Does the government think that it can use positive discrimination to attend to every social injustice and unfairness that its own and New Labour's policies inflicted on the country?

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    Don't know what the obsession was that Blair had with everyone going to Uni. Loads more degrees = de valuing of qualification, thus so many who can't get jobs and those that do are earning mediocre wages. Could also do with reducing non qualifications Media Studies, Hospitality ? They don't need Uni Degrees and those that have them rarely use them when qualified. Apprenticeships are a better bet !

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    I worked at a midlands university and we were told by the vice chancellor to "try learning chinese to recruit more foreign students" The vice chancellor didn't want students from the UK because he could't charge them the same high fees that he could get from the foreign ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    As usual government ministers are living on another planet. University grants and loans don't cover the cost of going to university. My daughter qualifies for the full grant/loan but her accommodation costs as a first year student leave her with just £20 a week for food/books/travel. Fortunately, her grandmother helps her but not all students have generous grandparents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    273 Oh Lord Please don't etc.

    'Computers have made knowledge obsolete'

    That comment is up there with 'Everything that can be invented has already been invented' (Charles Duell USA Commissioner of Patents 1899 ... attributed to him, although he probably didn't say it).

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Comment 270 says that universities "also have places for geeks and boffins but this is not their main role".

    This shows a total lack of respect for education. Geeks are behind the transistor, laser, periodic table, material science, mechanics, pharmaceuticals, computers, etc etc. Without geeks and boffins half the people reading this site would have died from pre-victorian medical technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    All this continual tosh about who should be targetted for universities is nonsense.
    one minute it's white boys, then black boys, then this, then that, then the other.
    In life it's the battle of the fittest - dog eat dog - the cream will rise to the top.
    Social engineeering is both wrong and pointless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    I can't believe that 30+% of jobs require university education.

    1) Most "ologies" are glorified guesswork mixed in with political correctness.
    2) Computers have made knowledge obsolete.

    I think the advantage having a degree gives you, is largely down to the fact the most managers have degrees and would like to perpetuate the myth that if means something beyond your ability to attain it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    My message to Willetts would be that prevention is better than cure. You expect universities to fix the problems of the class system when kids have reached age 18? You should be fixing the problem at primary and secondary level, not expect universities to remedy your lack of intervention at a much earlier stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    265. tony

    "Rich Daddies do cough up."

    I find I am agreeing with you Tony - In my experience really "Rich Daddies" are more than willing to cough up in order to make up for the intellectual limitations of some of their offspring - the current Royal Family being a prize example:

    Charles gaining entry to Trinity with a B and a C in History and French respectively ....

    How could this be so?

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    268. ruminations
    Do these top universities belong to the Russel Group ?..the same Russell Group who warn if state funding isn`t increased, then Chinese uni`s will lead the way in academic excellence..

    When did academic excellence enter the equation?
    University should prepare one for life.
    They also have places for geeks and boffins but this is not their main role

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    I want to discuss the fat obnoxious kids of the middle class, all of whom will be going to uni. How does eric fatboy intend to do stop them eating themselves to death? Or is that just another stigmatising of the socially excluded unemployed? Big sound bites from a big belly indeed. And to think, he is university educated. What a waste of money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    265 Tony..

    You need educating on how our top universities are funded....

    Do these top universities belong to the Russel Group ?..the same Russell Group who warn if state funding isn`t increased, then Chinese uni`s will lead the way in academic excellence..

    Oxford / Cambridge et al in Russell Group..

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    Few years ago asked this posh female feminist who was the most disadvantaged in today's society a female who attended a top female public school or a male from the local council estate. "Her reply was I don't know I will have to think about that one" . I said I save your brain cell it's the latter because class is still the biggest determinant on money and power not gender.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    This Uni nonsense is a con. So many immigrant students come here, apparently with the intent to become doctor's or other hard working pillars of the community etc, use up the loans on things they shouldn't and then four years later go straight onto the benefits system. Hence why this country is full of unemployed philosophers from the middle east.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.


    How about "blind" entrance exams for ALL universities?
    Those admitted (the brightest) get full state funding
    No more "daddy bought" degrees.
    Just who, do you imagine, pays to keep our top schools and universities at the top? It is certainly not all state funded, nor from trade unions.
    Rich Daddies do cough up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Alot of uni`s use contextual data for entrance to their teaching....exam results aren`t always the be and end of

    An astute interview board will see a kid from a redundant mining town getting a B against all odds is in some ways a better prospect than a silver spooner from the home counties getting an A.

    All uni`s have to admit kids from deprived backgrounds...it`s how the millions are spent.


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