21 Sep 2022

Proportion of men in higher education hits all-time low

9:38 am on 21 September 2022
Generic Library / Students

Only 39 percent of NZ university students are men, according to recent figures. (File photo). Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The percentage of domestic university students who are men has reached an all-time low of 39 percent, and it is worrying universities.

The figure is down from 42 percent in 2016, and is lower than the UK and Australia where 43 to 44 percent of students are men.

The 39 percent figure is "head-count" meaning part-time students count as one student, but moving to full-time equivalents makes little difference - men were 40 percent of the domestic student roll on an FTE basis last year.

The change in the gender balance happened even though the number of male New Zealand students increased in each of the past two years - it is just that the number of female students increased even more.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said the trend was worrying because New Zealand men might find themselves shut out of highly-skilled jobs.

"We know that the economy is going through a long-term change where more and more of the jobs that are being created are requiring highly-skilled, highly-educated workers - up to almost two-thirds of the jobs in the economy now.

"It's not good for New Zealand if we're seeing large numbers of undereducated young men."

He said it was not clear if the trend would continue but based on past experience it was likely a rise in unemployment would prompt more men to enrol in tertiary courses.

"The long-term trend has been steadily downwards but to some extent over the last 10 years it's also followed the economic cycle.

"Where youth unemployment was significantly high after the global financial crisis in 2007 up to about 19 even 20 percent it's now down to 12 percent so there's a lot more jobs for young men leaving school."

Whelan said there was not a lot universities could do.

"We can't tell people what to study, we can't tell people to go to university.

"The most important factor in a young person being able to get to university from school is getting university entrance and we are concerned by the statistics that we're seeing there."

Students at a university workshop.

The change in gender balance has happened in the last few years. Photo: 123RF

Last year 48 percent of the girls who left school had university entrance but for boys the figure was 34 percent. Both figures were slightly higher than a decade higher.

Meanwhile, industry training statistics indicated men who might have studied at a university or polytechnic had opted for on-the-job training instead.

The percentage of industry trainees and apprentices who were men rose from 65 percent in 2019 to 69 percent last year, despite strong growth in enrolments by women.

Te Pūkenga deputy chief executive Angela Beaton said achieving a more even balance was important.

"It absolutely matters because from my point of view, Aotearoa's success as a country really depends on unlocking that contribution from all of our people across all aspects of society and if you look at things like trades, women make up half the population but they hold less than I think 12 percent of trades' jobs."

Government subsidies for particular trades played a big role in the recent surge in enrolments in apprenticeships, Beaton said.

Independent research institute Motu economic and public policy research fellow Isabelle Sin said the main driver of the change over the past decade appeared to be more women choosing to enrol in higher education.

But she said more recently the pandemic had a huge effect on enrolment patterns.

"The disruption from that I think we can expect to see for a number of years.

"So for instance, a lot of quite good students have just decided 'there's no point me doing higher education now, I might put that on hold and come back in a few years' and it's hard to say that's not a good decision for some of those people."

Some people were enrolling in higher education though it was not needed for the jobs they wanted, Sin said.

"In some areas we might be in an equilibrium where students go and get a degree because everyone gets a degree and you can't compete for a job if you don't have a degree.

"But maybe that's not best for them, maybe that's not best for society so I don't think it's necessarily clear that everyone should be getting a degree."

However there were broader societal benefits in having a population with high levels of education, she said.

The dominance of women in higher education would not necessarily lead to more women getting senior jobs in the workforce because there were other factors at work, Sin said.

Figures provided by universities showed the gender balance swung even further in favour of women this year.

Massey University had the highest percentage of female students at 68 percent, a figure it said was influenced by enrolments in its extra-mural courses.

Lincoln University was a majority-male institution until recent years but this year its domestic enrolments were 54 percent female.

The University of Otago said its figures showed a steady trend of females becoming an increasingly clear majority of its roll from the late 1980s onwards.

"Typically a gain of about one percent every three years, even if a different mix of factors have been driving that shift at different points in time," it said.

Percentage of female domestic students:

Auckland - 57 percent

AUT - 63 percent

Waikato - 64 percent

Massey - 68 percent

Victoria - 60 percent

Canterbury - 58 percent

Lincoln - 54 percent

Otago - 61 percent

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