The greater divide

Top freshers are again female and the gender gap is still growing, says Lee Elliot Major

Lee Elliot Major
Tuesday January 9, 2001
Guardian Observer (UK)

The educational divide between the sexes continues to grow, with female students making up an ever larger share of the freshers entering university with the best A-level grades this year.

According to the latest official statistics for students enrolling last October, women accounted for 55% of degree entrants with As and Bs in their A-levels, and 56% of those with six or more Scottish Highers.

The figures confirm a steady trend over the last decade, reflecting the better performance of girls throughout the education system, from GCSE and A-level results to university graduation rates. A once male-dominated academic world has been transformed: women made up 54% of all degree applicants for the 2000 academic year.

It is particularly among the students with the highest A-level grades from state schools and further education colleges where girls outnumber boys. Nearly three out of five new degree students from the state sector with at least an A and two Bs in their A-levels were female this year.

This contrasts with the results at independent schools and grant maintained schools, which produce roughly equal numbers of girls and boys with top A-level grades.

Overall just under 26,000 female students enrolled with at least 26 A-level points, compared with just over 21,000 male students. Women accounted for 55% of top graded entrants in 2000, compared with 53.5% in 1999, and 51% in 1996, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

The gaping educational gender divide is likely to cause further concerns for education ministers, who have already unveiled plans to recruit more male teachers in schools to provide role models for boys.

Other official statistics for universities show that women are less likely to drop out of degree courses than men, all other things being equal. Women also now make up a larger proportion of graduates with upper seconds and firsts.

It may come as some comfort to ministers that the same educational trends are being experienced in the US and Ireland, however.

The gender split emerges as the clearest trend in an otherwise familiar set of enrolment figures. As with the previous year, under half of all university applicants came from the managerial and professional classes in 2000, with three quarters of the 389,000 applicants being white and state schools again producing a quarter of all university applicants.

The academic institutions with the highest female enrolments reflect a preference among women students for the arts and social sciences.

At Goldsmiths College, 70% of new degree entrants were female, while a cluster of institutions attracted three out of five applications from women including Ulster, Middlesex, Glasgow Caledonian, Keele, Manchester Metropolitan and Bangor universities.

Institutions attracting less than two out of five applications from women were mainly those recognised for their strengths in science and technology and sport: Imperial College, London, Umist, Heriot-Watt and Loughborough.

The University of Bristol emerges as the most popular university in the UK, receiving 35,000 applications - just over 12 for every place available. Other popular institutions included the London School of Economics (more than 11 applications for every place) and Warwick University (just under 10 applications for every place).

At the other end of the spectrum, the University of Central Lancashire and University of Wales, Lampeter, attracted fewer than three applications per place.

Cambridge is proving more popular - among men and women - than Oxford. Both universities had roughly 3,250 places available, but Cambridge received 12,000 applications, compared with only 9700 attracted by Oxford. (Students are not allowed to apply to both universities.)

Cambridge's intake for 2000 was 48% women students - up 3% on the previous year. At Oxford, meanwhile, 46% of the undergraduate enrolments were female.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001