Fewer boys are making the grade

A generation ago men in higher education outnumbered women. Now the opposite is true. What happened? asks Jos Claessen.

In the school year 2010/2011, 123,894 students attained a higher education degree (a higher vocational education bachelor or an academic bachelor or master). But this imposing figure hides a worrying imbalance between male and female graduates which should give us pause for thought.

Of this number, 44% was male while women made up the majority with 56%. A discrepancy of this size is astounding. Only a generation ago men outnumbered women in higher education. In 2013 it’s the men who are lagging behind. Why?

Administrators and politicians are becoming increasingly aware that a transformation is taking place. In 2011, former education minister Marja van Bijsterveld shrugged off what she perceived to be a minor drop in school performance by boys. Her successor Jet Bussemaker, however, wonders in her Emancipation policy outline if the ‘success of the girls’ comes with a ‘problem for the boys’.


The most pressing question is: where do boys go wrong? Boys start out with a small numerical advantage. Every year 180,000 children are born in this country, 51% of whom are boys and 49% girls. 1.6 million four-year-olds go to primary school and 1.5 million get into main stream education. Research has found that boys do well in primary school. Their Cito exit test scores are usually slightly higher than those of the girls. So far so good.

Based on primary school results and the test scores, it would be reasonable to assume that roughly the same number of girls and boys go on to havo or vwo, or secondary non-vocational education. It is during the first few years that differences are beginning to show.

In year three, 3% more girls than boys are attending vwo. More boys than girls are leaving this type of education. 52% of the havo graduates of 2010/2011 were girls against 46% boys. The figures for vwo graduates show an even bigger discrepancy: the girls make up 54% of the total while boys limp in with 46%.

It gets worse at the next stage:

– there are 15% more female graduates with a higher vocational education bachelor in 2010/2011

– there are 10% more female graduates with an academic bachelor in 2010/2011

– there are 8% more female graduates with an academic master in 2010/1011

The conclusion must be that the drop-out rate among male students soars at higher education level.


There is no shortage of theories to explain this phenomenon. The over-representation of women in the teaching profession (80% at primary school level), for one, is said to lead to a feminine culture and ditto teaching style. There are not enough challenging, robust male role models. But boys have good Cito test results and enter the different levels of secondary education in equal numbers. There is no empirical evidence that points to a negative effect of female teachers on boys’ educational success.

The ‘problem for the boys’ in secondary education is blamed on the introduction of the Studiehuis, or independent learning, and the differences in development and maturity of the adolescent male and female brain. Again, there is no hard evidence to support this. What we do know is that there are big differences between schools as far as boys’ study results are concerned.

Some schools steer many more male students to the finishing line than others. The secret is that their educational concept acknowledges children (both boys and girls) have different educational needs and this is reflected in the way they are taught. These schools have found a balance between structure and independence.

We don’t really know what is happening in higher education. But we do know the study results of male students are lagging behind and that this is happening throughout Europe. This would mean the specific characteristics of the educational Dutch system are not (solely) to blame.

Whatever the cause, action needs to be taken. At the moment, we haven’t enough generic and reliable indictors to see where things go wrong. This research needs to be carried out, sooner rather than later.

Jos Claessen is a didactics professor at the LOOK Scientific Centre for Teacher Research.

This article was published earlier in Trouw.

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