October 21, 2003
More on gender differences in higher education

Yesterday's speculations here about higher education maybe being a male preoccupation were doubted by a commenter, and that same commenter would find further confirmation of his doubts in this story, from the Independent:

Women work harder than men at university and get better degrees as a result, according to a study carried out at Brunel University.

The research, which tracked 200 students over four-years, found that women consistently outperformed men in further education even though they had started their courses with almost identical A-level results.

The study was launched after academics in Brunel's geography and earth science department became concerned that male students were under-performing.

Its findings could have far-reaching consequences as Brunel's vice-chancellor, Steven Schwartz, heads a government task force into university admissions, which is investigating how more disadvantaged students can be encouraged to go into higher education.

Apparently attitudes more commonly found in ghettos seem to be creeping into universities:

The study, based on 180 questionnaires and interviews with more than 70 students, concluded that males underachieved because they felt working hard was not "macho".

Here's how the story ends:

Professor Schwartz said the research, though inconclusive, raised interesting questions. "The government has a focus on widening participation to reach its target of 50 per cent of school leavers moving into higher education," he said. "However, it may be that the vast majority of graduates will be women, while men risk losing out in the qualifications stakes.

"This survey shows how vital it is that we engage all young people and teach them the value of higher education."

Clearly my remarks yesterday about differing attitudes of men and women to higher education were at best out of date, as that commenter said. But what if the trend described here reflects something almost the opposite of what I was referring to yesterday, namely that higher education, at any rate at a place like Brunel, is now ceasing to be a way to stand out from the crowd, and more a way of sticking with the crowd? Are the men, now that they feel unable to stick out at the top end of the class, saying to hell with it?

What are now the poshest of the posh "finishing schools"? Might even the poshest universities perhaps now be being replaced as the incubators of society's Crown Princes by such places as the top management consultancies? I'm guessing that men still predominate there, but am, today as yesterday, very ready to be corrected about such things.

I realise that I'm flailing about here, but these are not notions I am ready to abandon, merely because the first few darts I threw at them missed. The idea that education is an arena which displays the contrasts between the male and female psyches, strikes me as worthwhile. Why should twenty first century higher education not reveal these differences, every bit as much as the coming of age rituals of South Sea Islanders or African cattle-herders?

And since higher education in our societies has changed a lot in the last fifty years, most notably in the sheer numbers of people involved in it, but in lots of other ways too, many of them triggered by that numerical change, you would expect male and female concerns to express themselves differently in this radically changed setting.

To put the thing bluntly and gender stereotypically, women do as they are told, while men want to excel, but if they can't … then fuck it. (It was interesting that one of the things that "diverted" men from doing the academic work that they were "supposed" to be doing at Brunel university was sport.) What I'm saying is: university course work of the usual sort nowadays no longer appeals to the male lust for glory. And there may also be an inherently masculine desire to go off and male bond with the other males, and to avoid anything which stinks of "women's work", as I'm guessing university work now seriously does.

A hundred or two hundred years ago, higher education was something you either had bought for you, or you had to fight for. So to be non-rich and at a university at all was an inherently glorious thing. (That's what I think I was trying to say yesterday.) Now university is pretty close to being a universal right.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:59 PM
Category: Higher education