Male students less likely to seek help from university services, says new research

Male students are less likely than their female counterparts to seek help from university support services when they face problems, according to new research conducted by University of Sussex sociologist Dr Ruth Woodfield.

Dr Woodfield and co-researcher Dr Liz Thomas (Edge Hill University) were commissioned by the Equality Challenge Unit to research whether gender differences in engagement with academic and pastoral support services at university might form part of the current picture in which men are less likely to stay on their course and achieve a ‘good’ degree.

And as thousands of new students begin life at university across the UK this week (Mon 17 September 2012), Dr Woodfield offers some timely advice for Freshers and returning students on what to do if things don’t go according to plan.

Dr Woodfield says: “Try to reflect on how you are progressing in your studies and how you feel about your university experience – if you have any issues, seek out a service that can address them. Seek out support as early as you can during your time at university. There are many forms of support available to help you progress academically, socially, financially and in terms of your future career. They can be effectively used at all points in your student career and not just when you feel stressed or are facing a specific concern.”

The researchers looked at student uptake of services at seven higher education institutions, including careers advice, financial support, IT and study skills support, library services, pastoral support, disability services, counselling, health care, faith support and students’ union services, and whether this differed by gender. More than 4,000 students completed an online survey and 47were interviewed, along with 17 service providers.

The main findings were that male students were less aware of the services on offer, less likely to use them, less likely to rate them positively, less likely to approach multiple services for help with a problem and less keen to engage on a personal level, even when they recognised that they were struggling with aspects of university life.

According to the study, men were more likely to opt for interactions that didn’t involve personal engagement with frontline staff or form-filling. They also feared that seeking help would be perceived as vulnerability, which some found compromising.

White men generally reported greater awareness of a range of services than black or Asian men.

Women, on the other hand, were more likely to engage with frontline university services early on in the belief that such engagement would produce a positive outcome.

Dr Woodfield says: “A number of research studies have identified the positive contribution that academic and pastoral services make to student experience, retention and success. Little is known, however, about the uptake of support services, and whether this differs by gender. This research aimed to provide a robust evidence base to develop understanding about patterns of male and female undergraduate engagement.

Dr Woodfield concludes: “Much of the commentary from students and service providers suggested that men would benefit from better engagement with support services. Some service providers suggested that men were being clearly disadvantaged by not seeking support early enough and by not fully engaging with it.”

The research will feed into policy advice for support service providers.

Notes for Editors

The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education across all four nations of the UK, and in colleges in Scotland.

ECU (2012) Male Students Engagement with Academic and Pastoral Support Services, R. Woodfield and E. Thomas

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Last updated: Tuesday, 18 September 2012