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Following a call from UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook for more action to tackle the under-representation of white males in the student population, Hannah Ordoyno, widening participation manager at the University of Leicester argues that current male students can have a significant impact as role models.
Boys are less likely to attend higher education than girls. White working class boys are less likely to attend higher education than their female peers. Recently released UCAS figures have highlighted these two statements clearly, but is this news? Although the gender gap in progression to higher education is at its greatest, it has been increasing since the early 1990s and in 2007, HEFCE acknowledged that ‘sex inequality’ was ‘an issue for widening participation’.
There is a wealth of research which explains these differences in relation to hormones, maturity, behaviour, learning styles, the hidden curriculum and differences between the male and female brain. However, I want to focus upon what we, as higher education institutions, should do to tackle this growing issue.
Prior to its dissolution, Aimhigher, a government-funded initiative, launched the ‘Boys into HE’ project in 2007 to address the issue of gender inequality in higher education progression. As part of this project a portfolio of best practice was compiled generated from other initiatives which had successfully engaged with boys. The legacy of this project and portfolio is a set of successful strategies which schools, colleges and universities can turn to when addressing the current and increasing gender gap in progression to higher education. Key to the success of these activities is the partnership of the different institutions with the boys, their parents and the community.
As with all widening participation activity, these interventions need to focus upon engaging the participants and transforming their ideas about education, raising attainment and aspirations, and providing information and advice about higher education - some of which should focus upon dispelling the gender stereotypes which are linked to certain degree courses. To address the gender imbalance, some of these activities should be targeted to meet the particular needs of boys, specifically white working class boys.
Evidence indicates that initiatives which involve taking boys to local sports clubs, music venues and businesses as well as university or college campuses result in higher levels of engagement. That said, expecting the same activity to engage and inspire all participants will only lead to disappointment. It is important to investigate the interests of these boys and tailor the content and the delivery of the sessions to suit them; use their personal interests as a means of engaging them.
As well as hosting activities at different venues, universities or colleges should engage the boys’ role models in their activities; use the experiences of these role models to demonstrate the importance of education and the positive impact it could have on the boys’ lives. These role models may be their fathers, teachers or members of the community such as sportsmen, musicians or others that the boys aspire to emulate.
An invaluable resource that universities and colleges have at our fingertips are our current male students. Whether they are regularly working in a classroom through schemes such as the ‘Leicester Students in Classrooms’ or ‘Tomorrow’s Teachers’, providing mentoring support through e-mentoring schemes, or supporting the activities of the widening participation team on one of events, their experiences and insights are irreplaceable. These young men can demonstrate to younger boys that higher education is possible and it is a valuable experience. These schemes also provide our students with an opportunity to experience elements of the teaching profession, possibly influencing their own career choices.
At the University of Leicester, we have taken positive action to raise awareness of the Leicester Ambassador Scheme among our male undergraduate students. We have increased the proportion of males participating in the scheme from 19 per cent to 24 per cent over the past 18 months, and hope to further increase this proportion in the future. We are also incredibly proud of the 966 hours that male undergraduates spent supporting teaching and learning in our local schools in 2014/15 as part of the Student in Classrooms scheme. Again, we hope to continue this good work in 2015/16 by increasing the proportion of male undergraduates who participate.
Taking into account the strategies outlined above, in order to successfully tackle this issue, we need to ensure that sustainability is at the centre of our work. One-off activities need replacing with a progressive programme of activities which fosters relationships between the universities and the young boys, their families and their schools.
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