OPINION | Are men on the academic endangered list?

A general view of the University of Cape Town on January 21, 2020 in Cape Town.
A general view of the University of Cape Town on January 21, 2020 in Cape Town.
Gallo Images/Jacques Stander

In old photos of law and medical schools in South Africa, they are the rule, not the exception. Now history seems to have left them behind. In those same schools of law and medicine, they make up barely 30% of the numbers. 


There has been a media storm recently about the question of which university courses need to recruit more students of a certain type. We should be more worried, I suggest, about a group of students who were once numerically dominant, in control, confident in being the norm, but now have seen their numbers and influence dwindling.

In old photos of law and medical schools in South Africa, they are the rule, not the exception. Now history seems to have left them behind. In those same schools of law and medicine, they make up barely 30% of the numbers.

I am, of course, referring to men – and how they have dropped, and are dropping behind in higher education.

At a dinner a few years ago, I got talking to a Dean of Medicine at a South African medical school. I told him that, at UCT, the medical school class was 70% female and asked him about his university. About 70% female, he said, but that's because of affirmative action. He smiled and added, affirmative action for men – if we went on matric results, it would be 80-90% female.

In the past quarter of a century, the trend for girls to leave the schooling system before boys has been reversed in many countries – and dramatically in South Africa. It is boys who now are the weaker sex, educationally speaking.

The figures for the country as a whole are striking.

Men may be nearly half the population, but they form only 40.9% of students in tertiary education. (In 2018, 444 040 men to 641 492 women – all figures are taken from the Higher Education Data Analyser website.)

For students classified as African, there are nearly 44% more women than men (484 804 to 335 803); for students classified as Coloured, over 72% more (41 716 to 24 192); for those classified as White, about 33% more women (80 173 to 60121); for those classified as Indians, about 52% more (28 843 to 19 022).

The most typical student in tertiary education for some time has been an African woman at a formerly Afrikaans university – a trend educational expert Professor Ian Bunting pointed out years ago.

There has been a steady change over the past 30 years, from when male students were in the majority.

When Mandela came out of prison, there were nearly twice as many African and Coloured men than women at UCT, and about 20% more white men than women.

What has happened?

Is this simply a good news story of women, once suppressed, now seizing their opportunity, or has something gone wrong with the men? Have old disciplines of school or family lapsed and young men been unable to navigate what Shakespeare knew was a dangerous life-stage: "I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting…"

When I have asked students why they thought this was happening, two interesting themes emerged. One was that, while traditional middle-class roles dictated that families invest more in the education of young men, who are expected to become breadwinners, those roles are fluid, under pressure. Many mothers, often head of single parent households, are investing in their daughters.

Former magazine editor Taweni Gondwe, when I asked her why, quoted a Malawian proverb to the effect that, if you invest in a son, he will spend the money on a woman; if you invest in a daughter, she will look after you for life.

The other insight came to me when I asked an MA class, almost all women, if any of them had brothers who had not made it to university. Several hands went up. Why, I asked, hoping for deep answers about symbolic role models and masculinity and the feminisation of the academy. The answer I got was: "He played too much Play Station." Several others laughed in agreement.

So, perhaps it was the digital distractions wot did it. Between gaming, porn, Fantasy Football and worrying about the fate of Liverpool or Manchester United, young men in general spent, and spend, more time on entertainment than women do. International research supports this as a gender generalisation.

The implications of this gender divide for the future of South African society seem important. Should scholarship and bursary funds now concentrate on men as the educationally disadvantaged?

What happens when there are so many more educated women than men looking for partners? Will men try to re-assert traditional patriarchal roles and power when they are being out-educated and out-earned, and what kind of resistance will they meet?

How will these educated women shape the future of the country?

Better, we hope. (My wife added that.)

For parents of sons nearing the age of further education, the implications may be unpleasant. If you need to push against the powerful seductions of the digital domain, it is probably going to mean confrontation. You will have to give your sons the unpleasant news that brilliant performances on Fortnite or Call of Duty do not actually constitute a sensible preparation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Of course, they may already have decided that the only sensible response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution is Plan B - a return to jobs AI and the internet can't do. There are shortages of electricians and plumbers in South Africa and AI doesn't do short circuits and effluvia. In much of the developed world, plumbers are ahead of PhDs on lists of desired immigrants.

Or perhaps your thoroughly modern boys will tell you they have a Plan C – a wealthy partner who will do the studying for them and bring home the bread.

If so, I hope they are good-looking, good cooks, good housekeepers, good parents and good company.

Perhaps there will soon be finishing schools for young men hoping to be catches on the marriage market, where they can learn useful modern skills - like setting up Zoom sessions that make your partner look good, brewing acceptable pineapple beer during lockdown, minding your partner's social media accounts, handling household maintenance, changing nappies, learning to be emotionally supportive – and I'm sure those clever hard-working young women will have lots more to add to that list.

It may be easier, young men, to study harder.

- Ian Glenn is a Research Associate in Communications Sciences at the University of the Free State and Emeritus Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town
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