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Why are women 75% more likely to go to university than men?

19 May 2016

Why are women more likely to go to university

The BBC recently published an article claiming “a baby girl born in 2016 would be 75% more likely to go to university than a boy, if current trends continue”. The article went on to state that “women in the UK are now 35% more likely than men to go to university and the gap is widening every year”.

The figures are indeed alarming – but are they accurate? No. As it stands, they are not. Important information is not given and without this, that 75% is not very meaningful at all.

Firstly, it is important to know about the underlying rates of entry. The actual figures from UCAS are that 26.2% of men got into university in 2015 versus 35.4% of women. So, men have roughly a 1 in 4 chance of entry versus a 1 in 3 chance for women. The 35% greater likelihood translates to an overall difference of 9.2% between them. This is still a non-negligible percentage but not quite the eye-catching 35%.

We have not, however, yet considered all our vital factors. Secondly, we need consider the application rates. If more women than men are applying to university then, all else being equal, more women will be going to university. This is exactly what the UCAS data reveal. In 2015, 36% more women than men applied. The difference in application rate almost perfectly cancels out the difference in success rate.

The chances of getting in having made an application are almost exactly the same for both men and women: about 80%. The answer to the headline question is then easy to answer: because more women apply. The question should have been: why are more women than men applying to university?

To be fair, some of the article is in effect addressing this question. It wonders whether boys are simply less motivated to apply because of socio-economic factors, their ethnic background or perhaps being simply “less well disposed to studying.” As for girls, perhaps they are behaving in an “economically rational” way as they understand that difference in earnings between women with and without a degree is greater than the difference for men. These are interesting and important ideas. It is unfortunate, therefore, that they are to be found in an article which opens in a manner that does nothing to allay the ungrounded suspicion that there is a lack of fair play in the admissions system.

Mat Carmody
Director of Studies

References: 

  1. “Why do women get more university places?” - BBC
  2. UCAS End of Cycle Report 2015 - UCAS