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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  • Comment number 323.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    320 Mr Loser

    '... I think Gove is trying to get our education system back on its feet.'

    Would that be the Gove who is making learning a foreign language for seven year olds compulsory from 2014? Schools can choose from seven languages ... two are Latin and Ancient Greek. No Russian, no Arabic languages, no Indian sub - continent languages, no personal prejudice from our education minister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    318 Underclass

    Was walking in a local town a few weeks ago, minding my own business, when I looked up and found I was walking alongside the great man himself. He wasn't as large as I'd thought to be honest (not very tall) and annoyed me hugely by being friendly and personable. I like my bête noir to be awful all the time. I nearly had to read one of his speeches to get myself back to normality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    All that social engineering by the Blair government has resulted in load of people getting rubbish degrees.

    But the good news is I think Gove is trying to get our education system back on its feet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    Back in my day - the very early 1980s - about 8% of the population went to university. I was one. The state paid for my fees, it gave me a grant to live on and supported my studies. I would probably not have gone to university otherwise - my family could not have afforded it.
    I'm now a teacher and I work hard in a state school. There are more lucrative areas to work in, but I am paying my debts

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    317. Anglerfish

    I think he should take his good mate IDS' advice and get on his bike to lose some flab:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    316 Underclass

    He went to Leeds Poly where he followed a short law course but didn't qualify. He was taken to task when he was a councillor for describing himself as a lawyer (it's an offence to do that if you're not qualified ) although he never claimed he was a practising solicitor. I think any points made against him were dropped when he said he would sue so maybe it wasn't a strong case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Did Eric Pickles attend Uni? They could have learned him how not to make hypocritical attacks upon obese people, when you are a fat scrounger yourself. Just what are they teaching at posh boy college these days?

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    304. stuart downie

    Labour implemented the Tory inspired HE funding model based upon the Tory motivated Dearing report - this was a deal started by Thatcher.

    Ironic. Having obliterated industry - the Tory numpties are now looking at the Thatcher inspired Banks and 'service industries' with distain and promoting good old fashioned hard work and industry..

    .. and Thatcher gets a statue?

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    When I was a uni I was invited to lunch by a national brewery. It soon became clear that they were trying to recruit me. I pointed out to them that my degree had no relevance to brewing at all. Not interested, just wanted someone who had the capacity and application to get a degree, any degree. ''We'll train you for what we need.' Rarely happens now. Employers want it ready made for them. Cheaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    It is an indictment of all politicians that the jobs many school leavers who were not suitable, or had no desire, for university have long since disappeared from the UK employment base. Where have all the unskilled / semi-skilled jobs gone - abroad most of them. Now we keep kids at school who used to leave at 15 and go into factory work very happily.Now they are on the dole and that costs too much

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    279.Mr Meldrew
    clearly you never went to uni otherwise you would realise the most valued part for most prospective employers is the life skills the drive and determination and where with all to get your degree that matters far more than exactly what your degree was unless of course you are going into a very narrow career field but far more beocome sales persons or managers rather than physicists

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    They need to work harder at school. Schools need to encourage them more. Parents need to work harder with them. Universities shouldn't be letting underachievers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    The Tories say that not everybody is suited to University and would be better off pursuing a trade or an apprenticeship.
    Yeh Right What a patronising COP OUT !
    Funny how this conversation is only reserved for the Working Class.
    Funny how all those Upper Class Kids seem to be born with a natural studious talent bereft of any zest for a manual Trade.Bottom line, University is access to privelage

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    My friend's son is part of a "gifted and talented" program. They are being used to help teach younger children who are struggling with maths!!!
    That is a shocking waste of talent, these kids should be taught more challenging maths, they shouldn't be doing maths that is easy for them and they shouldn't be used as support teachers. We need the best to be best and not to make the mediocre better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    Speaking as a working class boy who made it to uni, only to discover it to be an extension of gentrification and hegemony, Its totally not worth the time or money. They will never really accept you into the club unless you adopt their middle class identity and hierarchy. Your better off borrowing the money to start a business or to pay a professional to train you one to one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Simple solution, if the 400 and odd billion quid hoarded by the super rich was reigned in by the government, every child in the uk could afford higher education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    Gifted kids should get grants to go to uni (just like the old days) but that's just the top 5%.

    The rest should get a job and be trained there - assuming the government has the gumption to create any jobs.

    Ooops - flaw in argument!

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    Re 294.mappamundiman
    “Maybe the poor are brighter than you think?”

    They might be, unfortunately they are poorer than Cover-Up Cameron, only the rich have the chance of going to university

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    Please remember that it was Blair and New Labour that introduced tuition fees but it was Cameron who then put the boot in by letting the fees go into orbit. I wouldn't mind but they both pulled the ladder up behind them.


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