University gender balance moves further along the XX axis

The student population at most of New Zealand’s eight universities has long been female dominated. But new figures show the gender balance has reached a new extreme.

Last year, just 39% of the 156,865 domestic students enrolled at universities were men, one percentage point lower than in 2020 and the lowest percentage on record.

The change happened despite a 2,800-student increase in the number of male domestic students in 2021. In the same year the number of New Zealand women enrolled leaped by nearly 7,000 to 95,175.

An obvious phenomenon

Students at Victoria University of Wellington told public broadcaster RNZ the gender split is obvious on their campus, but they do not think it is important.

“I would see at least two to three women for every man that I ran across at university,” said Zach, a commerce and law student.

“The only time it’s been a little bit weird was if it was just myself and some girls because you feel outnumbered, but aside from that it doesn’t really matter.”

Universities New Zealand says the figures do matter.

Its chief executive Chris Whelan said the long-term trend of a growing gap between men and women is concerning.

Whelan said there are a number of likely reasons for the disparity, but few are under the control of universities themselves.

Chief among them is the rate of achievement of University Entrance (UE), the standard required for school-leavers wanting to enrol in university courses.

Last year 48% of girls who left school had UE, but among boys the rate was just 34%.

“Until we lift achievement in schools, we cannot easily bring more young men through to university,” Whelan said.

Opting for work

He said a buoyant employment market is also playing a part, and it appears that more men are choosing to work instead of enrol in university study.

“Youth unemployment has fallen over the past 10 years – from 17% in 2012 to 9.1% in 2021. There are more jobs for school leavers to walk into and we can see that is the choice an increasing proportion of young men are taking,” he said.

He added: “This is understandable, but it is not always the best choice for the young man. Someone with a degree level qualification will earn NZ$1.4 million [US$796,000] more over their working life than someone with just a school qualification.

“A young man may be able to start earning money straight out of school but taking another three or four years for a post-school trade or academic qualification typically sees him better off financially from about age 33.”