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Delivering the University of Life

I’ve just checked, and it’s definitely 2016. And yet here we are once more having the gender gap discussion. Not a week goes by where we don’t seem to highlight the growing gaps in pay, education or the boardroom.

This week it’s the turn of higher education, and specifically figures released by UCAS that show in 2016, women were 36% more likely to apply for higher education at age 18 than men – the same as in 2015, and the highest recorded figure. And north of the border in Scotland – it’s even worse – 40% of women applied versus 26% of men. And although the number of women entering higher education has outpaced men for many years, the gap has continued to widen despite a huge increase in the number of school leavers going to university.

The obvious reason for the gap is that women are achieving better exam results in A-levels or Scottish Highers which then spurs them on to higher education, but perhaps there is fundamentally something stopping men from applying to university?

Perhaps it’s time to look holistically at what attracts students to go on to further and higher education. The emphasis in education as a whole is on the academic qualification and achieving great exam results and coupled with a perception of ‘another three years of studying’ – university can seem an all-consuming academic environment. Add fees to that, and it’s also a costly one that has to have payback. But work placements, hands on experience, team-working and the social aspect of higher education should all be elevated to the same level of importance to attract men to continue their education.

It’s time we measured the softer cognitive skills that ensure our students graduate with attributes employers seek out. Sure, exam results play a part, but when are attributes like team working, reliability and motivation going to get a fair hearing? Sporting achievement is currently the only other dimension to the university applications process and hugely relevant in the US, where varsity sport counts enormously. But what about leadership skills and entrepreneurialism – where’s the section on the application form for them?

Technology is playing an increasing role in being able to measure competencies beyond just academic ability and in years to come may just play a role in applying to university. These skills should not be underestimated, they are often the reason a student succeeds and lands them a great career. And what’s good for the student is good for the university.

Successful entrepreneurs often cite ‘the University of Life’ as their training ground. Perhaps its time our traditional universities looked at what the University of Life might look like to young men coming out of school.

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