There has been a longstanding widespread interest, concern and debate about the lower average attainment of boys in schools and colleges in the UK2. More recently attention has focussed on the growing differences between men and women in relation to participation and achievement in higher education. The Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) for 2007-08 is provisionally estimated to be 37.8 per cent for men and 49.2per cent for women (DIUS 2009).
In this report we look at the past trends in higher education participation in the UK, we examine what sort of higher education men and women enter and what happens after entry. We then look at the differences in participation between men and women for different ethnic and socio-economic groups, and for countries outside the UK. Finally we explore the possible reasons why the participation rate for women is higher, ask whether it matters, and consider what should be done.
Trends in higher education participation
In 1992-93 the participation rate for women, as measured by the Age Participation Index (API)3, exceeded that for men for the first time. Since then the difference in participation rates has increased. Figure 1 shows the API rates for men and women from 1972-73 to 2000-014.
In this report we have used an ‘inequality index’ based on odds ratios. An index value of zero represents equality. Positive values reflect a higher participation by women, negative a higher participation by men. The same absolute value (positive or negative) represents the same magnitude of the inequality5.
Figure 1: API by sex 1972-73 to 2000-01
We can also see that the positive value of the index in 2000-01 is larger than the negative value in 1972-73, indicating that the inequality in favour of women is greater at the end of the period than the inequality at the beginning in favour of men, though there were two years, 1977-78 and 1978-79, when greater inequalities are observed, which were in favour of men.
The API has since been replaced by the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate. (HEIPR). The HEIPR differs in a number of respects. It relates only to English domiciled students, rather than the UK, and it covers a wider age range. By taking the young (under 21) component of the HEIPR we have a measure somewhat closer to the API. Figure 2 shows the young HEIPR from 1999-00 to 2006-076.
For the years where both the API and HEIPR are available (1999-00 and 2000-01) the sex inequality shown by the API is greater. This will in part be due to the fact that sex inequalities for entrants from Scotland and Wales are greater than for England7 . However, we see that the trend of increasing inequality in participation, as measured by the gap between participation rates or the index has continued at least until 2003-04. Indeed, as measured by the inequality index, the inequality in favour of women in 2007-08 as measured by the young HEIPR (0.34) is the same as that in favour of men in 1978-79 as measured by the API, the greatest inequality observed since 1972-73.
Figure 2: Young (17 to 20) HEIPR by sex 1999- 00 to 2007-08
Looking in more detail at the Young HEIPR we see a ‘spike’ for both males and females in 2005-06. This is because the HEIPR is based on entry rather than age cohorts, and shows an artificially high participation for 2005-06 and a low participation for 2006-07 due to students who would normally have entered in 2006-07 aged 19 instead entering in 2005-06 at 18, thereby avoiding the increase in fees.
For the most recent HEIPR publication (DIUS 2009) DIUS changed the methodology but were only able to recalculate values using this new method back to 2006-07. The values for both methods are shown in table 2, with the new values plotted as dashed lines. The new method increased the HEIPR for both men and women, with women having the greater increase which resulted in an increase in the inequality index. It is not clear whether the new or the old method gives the most accurate measure of the relative rates of participation for men and women8.
Female participation grew between 1999-00 and 2002-03 which resulted in a widening inequality up to 2003-04. Since then the picture is somewhat complicated by both the ‘fees blip’ and the new HEIPR methodology. Though the trend is not clear, over the most recent period, from 2006-7 to 2007-08, the inequality index and gap in participation rates increased.
If we look at the components of the young HEIPR by single year of age, it is clear that the largest part of the difference between men and women is accounted for by entry at 18. Using measures based on age rather than entry cohorts, the HEFCE investigation of young participation also showed that almost all the inequality between men and women resulted from entry at 18, and that changes in entry at 18 accounted for the growth in this inequality between 1994 and 2000 (HEFCE 2005a).
Mature participation (21 to 30)
The ‘young’ component of the HEIPR accounted for 34.3 percentage points of the total of 43.3 per cent (2007-08). Not only is the mature contribution a smaller component, the uncertainties in its calculation are also much greater, because of the uncertainties in population estimates, particularly for men, and the greater difficulty in establishing whether an entrant has entered higher education before. The changes resulting from the change in methodology for calculating the HEIPR brought about a greater proportional increase in the mature participation rates, particularly for women. We need to bear this in mind when looking at the mature HEIPR component taking entrants aged from 21 to 30. These are shown in figure 3. We see that, rather than providing a means for men to ‘catch up’, mature entry adds to the participation gap between men and women, and, as for young entry, the inequality over the period is increasing. The inequality for 2007-08, as measured by the index, was greater for mature than for young entrants.
Figure 3: Mature (21 to 30) HEIPR by sex 1999-00 to 2007-08
The over thirties
The DIUS have also published a HEIPR which includes participation by students between 31 and 60 (DIUS 2009). For these students it is not possible to determine with any confidence whether they are initial entrants. The figures are therefore likely to be inflated, and that needs to be appreciated. However, these figures also showed very much higher rates for women, so much so that the difference is unlikely to be due to weaknesses in the data. Between 1999-00 and 2007-08 the rates for women were 11 to 13 per cent, while for men they were 6 to 7 per cent.
Apart from those in their mid and early thirties in 2007, these cohorts will have been 18 when the young participation rates (as measured by the API) were higher for men than for women, so for the older age groups mature participation will provide a means of ‘catching up’.
What sort of higher education?
Some commentators have suggested that women enter ‘lower status’ HE. Dr Burke, a sociologist of gender and education, summarised this viewpoint as follows:-
“Many women are studying in lower-status universities; many are mature or part-time students. The university continues to be a space where class privilege is maintained and women’s participation is limited to the bottom of a hierarchical continuum.”
As we have seen, participation rates by mature women are higher than for men, but the young participation rate is also higher. Indeed women have a higher participation rate for each single year of age from 17 to 30.
Table 19 shows the full- and part-time participation rates for men and women. It shows that though women do have a higher part-time participation rate than men, they also have a higher full-time participation rate.
Table 1: HEIPR (2007-08) components for men and women by mode
Full-time (including sandwich)
Full- and part-time
Source: HEFCE unpublished analysis
Table 2 shows the HEIPR components for different subjects. The proportions of men and women vary markedly by subject. In table 2 the subjects are ranked in order of difference in participation between men and women. Women have higher subject specific participation rates for all subjects apart from Technologies; Physical Sciences; Architecture; Building and Planning; Mathematical and Computer Science and Engineering. Apart from ‘Architecture’ and ‘Building and Planning’ these are ‘strategic subjects’ for which government believes there is insufficient student demand, and where competition for places is less demanding. In other words, men are overrepresented in the less popular subjects.
Table 2: HEIPR (2007-08) for men and women by subject group
Veterinary Sciences, Agriculture and related subjects
Business and Administrative studies
Historical and Philosophical studies
Medicine and Dentistry
Mass Communications and Documentation
Eastern, Asiatic, etc, (non European languages)
Architecture, Building and Planning
Mathematical and Computer Science
Source: HEFCE unpublished analysis
It is worth noting that while women are underrepresented in the physical sciences, this is not the case for natural science as a whole. The participation rates for physical and biological sciences are 6.9 per cent for women compared to 5.5 per cent for men.
While men are overrepresented in the less popular subjects women have higher subject specific participation rates in a number of very popular subjects which can lead to high salaries, in particular the clinical subjects and law. However, it is the case that overall the profile of subjects taken by women is a factor in reducing their average graduate salaries.
The only example of an initiative to encourage a group of students defined by their sex to take up a particular subject described in the HEFCE equality scheme (HEFCE 2007a), is a project to encourage women to study engineering. Given that so few women study this subject, and that it has been identified as a ‘strategic subject’, this in itself is not remarkable, but the lack of any identified initiatives to encourage men to take up, say, teaching means there is a lack of balance.
The idea that women’s participation “is limited to the bottom of a hierarchical continuum” seems to have gained wide acceptance10. Assessing these claims is difficult because the ‘ranking’ of institutions is a question of judgement. Table 3 shows the components of the HEIPR by institution type according to a commonly assumed hierarchy of prestige.
We can see from table 3, for all the types of institution identified, women have an equal or higher institution type specific participation rate. Given the differences between men and women in their choices of subjects, for individual institutions that specialise in particular subjects, women may be poorly represented, but there is no evidence that women are under-represented in what are often perceived to be the top of the hierarchy of institutions.
Table 3: HEIPR (2007-08) for men and women by type of institutions
For all types of institution, apart from Oxbridge, women have a higher participation than men. For Oxbridge the participation rates are equal11. The high participation rates of women in post-92 HEIs and further education colleges (presumably these are what are meant by ‘lower ranked’) does mean that the proportion of women students attending the ‘higher ranked’ institutions will be slightly lower than the corresponding proportion of male students, even though women also have equal or higher participation rates than men in those institutions. 40.8 per cent of women entered pre-92 and 17.8 per cent entered Russell group universities (including Oxford and Cambridge). This compares with 42.2 per cent and 19.4 per cent for the equivalent proportions for men. This may be what misleads some to believe that women are disadvantaged with respect to participation at high status institutions.
Beyond HE entry
Participation usually means entry to higher education which may involve no more than a short period of study before leaving without a qualification12. For the most part we follow this convention. To explore all aspects of students’ achievement and gains from higher education would greatly extend the scope of the discussion. However, in this section we look at some of the main post entry milestones and consider whether and how this alters our interpretation of the participation gaps described so far.
Participation as successful completion
Table 4 shows the how the lower completion rate for male students reduces their participation rates relative to female students when we take ‘participation’ to mean successful completion of an undergraduate programme rather than just entering a programme and possibly leaving before qualifying.
The successful completion rates are estimates of the proportion of the English domiciled cohort starting at aged 18 in 2000-01 and at 19 in 2001-02 at an HEI who will qualify within six years of starting13. We can see that the difference in participation rates increases from just under five percentage points to six percentage points when we move from ‘entry’ to ‘completion’ participation rates.
Table 4: Participation as entry and as successful completion
Participation ‘as entry’ rates
Participation ‘as successful completion’ rates
The lower completion rates for men are also demonstrated by the non-continuation rates as defined for performance indicators. Non-continuation from the year of entry generally represents about half the failure to qualify from full-time degree programmes. Table 5 shows these non-continuation rates for men and women14.
Table 5: Non-continuation rates from year of entry
(2005-06 home entrants to full-time first degree programmes at UK HEIs).