A recent report on female graduates far outpacing men said a leading education expert is calling for the lack of men at university to be considered an equity issue.
The expert is Professor Richard James of University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education and lead author of the most recent commissioned review of the higher education equity framework. He said a reluctance to treat male under-representation as an equity issue is preventing this gender imbalance being addressed.
Are males disadvantaged?
The 2004 report of that equity review recommended that female students should be removed as a target equity group except in engineering and IT; that male students should be included as an equity group in nursing, society and culture, and education; and that their participation should be monitored with a view to males being included as an equity group overall.
Submissions from the sector endorsed monitoring gender representation at institutional and sector levels but rejected other changes to gender-specific equity definitions.
At the heart of this issue is whether male students being outnumbered by female students is evidence that they are disadvantaged in their access to or success in higher education.
Given the undeniable benefits arising from university qualifications, any under-representation by students sharing significant demographic characteristics – such as Indigeneity, socioeconomic status, location, culture, linguistic background or gender - deserves to be looked at very carefully.
While under-representation may well reflect disadvantage, it may not. A pattern of under-representation might reflect active and advantaging choice, rather than disadvantaging barriers.
For example, more male students might choose to enter nursing or early childhood education programs if these professions experienced dramatic improvements in pay and conditions, which would be a choice. But even very well-paid careers in mining engineering entice no more than a trickle of female students, suggesting a barrier.
Gender imbalances in higher education
The most recent higher education student data indicates that female students were 55.4% of the 2014 cohort, but disappointingly no other demographic categories are disaggregated by gender. Other government data shows almost 5% higher graduation rates by the already larger female student cohort.
So while we know there are more female than male students, and that the gender imbalance among graduates is slightly greater, we don’t know much else about the “extra” female students or the “missing” male students who make up this imbalance.
Fortunately the data bank from the last equity review gives us some important clues. Male students were disproportionately from high socioeconomic backgrounds, more likely to be in fee-paying courses and funded by their employer.
Females were more highly represented among students taking up income-contingent loans, as well as Indigenous, rural, isolated, mature-aged and low socioeconomic status students. Females were under-represented among high socioeconomic status students, and more highly represented in less prestigious suburban and regional universities.
Another national study found that female students were more likely to be Indigenous, rural, isolated, to be working part-time and for more hours, while high socioeconomic status students were disproportionately male.
High socioeconomic status students were concentrated in the better-resourced Group of Eight universities. Group of Eight universities also had the lowest representation of both low socioeconomic status and Indigenous students of any university grouping in the period 2007-12.
Domestic undergraduate enrolments grew by 20% in recent years, especially following the uncapping of places.
The growth across the Group of Eight was almost half this (10.9%) whereas the increase among low socioeconomic status and Indigenous students was almost double and more than treble the national growth rate respectively.
What does all this tell us?
Focusing on gender representation alone ignores intersections with other important factors. Adding in these factors shows that suggestions that female students are flooding into higher education, squeezing out their male peers, are distortions of reality.
First, these suggestions ignore the uncapping of university places. There is no “squeezing” going on. More female students does not mean fewer males. Just as increases in students from less privileged backgrounds does not mean decreases in the more privileged.
Second, while universities continue to report on the original equity target groups (women in non-traditional areas among them), equity funding and strategies prioritise Indigenous, low socioeconomic status, regional and remote students – not women.
Third, these suggestions overlook the above sector enrolment increases from the more disadvantaged groups in our community, among which female students are disproportionately represented.
Fourth, these suggestions fail to consider institution-specific dimensions. Females are more prevalent in suburban and regional universities where recent growth has been at, or near, sector growth. Males are more prevalent in the prestigious Group of Eight, which has had the least growth.
Fifth, they ignore the discipline-specific nature of gender representation and graduation rates. Women are concentrated in study areas leading into less well-paid, mass professions, and male students are in those leading to better paid and more prestigious ones.
The graduation rates are higher in many of the disciplines in which females are concentrated and lower in several male-dominated disciplines, agriculture and information technology being well below the sector average.
Further, advantaged students (disproportionately male) more commonly refer to choice and lifestyle for their failure to complete their degree, whereas equity group students (disproportionately female) list finance, family obligations and core issues relating to getting by.
Lastly, the focus on total numbers of male and female students overlooks the differences in socioeconomic, disciplinary and institutional patterns, with large numbers of males more privileged on each of these dimensions.
Thus simply targeting an increase in male student enrolments could lead to increased enrolments from high socioeconomic status students. This would undermine the national target to reach 40% low socioeconomic status students by 2020, and further increase males’ disproportionate representation among the most privileged students.
But our “missing” male students are Indigenous, from low socioeconomic backgrounds and regional and remote locations - so targeting these groups makes a lot more sense.