The Times

January 14 2001

Women get more firsts at university than men

John Elliott
The Sunday Times

WOMEN have finally achieved supremacy throughout the British education system. For the first time since degree classification was introduced 200 years ago, more women than men are gaining first-class honours.

Official figures from the 170 universities and colleges in Britain show that 200 more women than men graduated with the top honours last year and completed the triple. Since the introduction of GCSEs in 1988, girls have outperformed boys and increased their lead in gaining A grades in the examinations. Last year they also edged ahead of boys in gaining A grades at A-level.

"It is a significant landmark which shows that the efforts of the past 30 years in encouraging girls to stay on in education have paid dividends," said Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, the university admissions service.

It is, however, also likely to reignite the debate over boys' academic under-performance. David Blunkett, the education secretary, ordered an inquiry last summer into the slump in boys' performance at GCSE and laid some blame on the rise of "laddish" culture.

The figures, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, reveal that last summer 11,000 women gained first-class degrees compared with 10,800 men. This is a reversal of the position of the previous year when it was 10,500 men to 10,200 women. Just five years ago, 2,000 more men left with firsts than women.

Last summer more women than men gained top honours in 12 of the 17 main subject areas including medicine, law and business. Although men still dominate engineering, computing and physical sciences, the number of women with firsts has more than trebled in these subjects over the past decade.

The trend is likely to continue. Although a higher proportion of men still get firsts, the agency's figures show that girls are increasingly winning places at the top universities. Last October they made up 55% of those university entrants with As and Bs in their A-levels.

Experts believe that the growing shift away from the use of examinations towards coursework to assess performance at university has also helped women.

"Women do better at coursework because of their continuous and conscientious input," said Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University's Centre for Education and Employment Research. "Men are often better at final exams, where they can demonstrate flair and imagination in a one-off situation."

Total number by year Women
1995 7500 9300
1996 7900 9400
1997 8600 9700
1998 9400 10100
1999 10200 10500
2000 11000 10800
Subject Group
Number achieved by full time students in summer 2000 by subject group. Does not include part-time students
Medicine and dentistry 130 100
Subjects allied to medicine* 940 340
Biological sciences 1060 510
Agriculture and related subjects 90 50
Physical sciences 610 1020
Mathematical sciences 320 560
Computer science 190 870
Engineering and technology 470 2020
Architecture, building and planning 120 260
Social, economic and political studies 710 540
Law 220 180
Business and administrative studies 830 500
Librarianship and information sciences 150 70
Languages 990 530
Humanities 430 420
Creative arts and design 1130 810
Education 530 110
*eg nursing and pharmacology
Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

Copyright 2001, Times Newspapers Ltd.