The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enhancing professionalism in education since 1965

A question of balance

The Scottish Funding Council aims to tackle gender under-representation in college and university courses

Society’s expectations skew the gender balance in education. In the country’s colleges and universities some courses are dominated by males or females, not because the institutions want it that way, but because young women and men are pressurised into following certain career paths.

However, things are changing. For several years, colleges and universities have been exploring ways to encourage prospective students to consider every opportunity open to them, no matter what tradition dictates. And in 2016 the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) issued its latest Gender Action Plan to help boost progress.

We are tackling societal issues and it will be difficult, but it's something that must be done

Fiona Burns, Assistant Director for Access at SFC, explained: “The Funding Council was asked, along with Skills Development Scotland, to look at gender balance through the Scottish Government’s Developing the Young Workforce programme. Initially the aim was to focus on school-leavers entering college. However, we thought it was a much wider issue and decided to cover all ages and the college and universities sector.”

The Gender Action Plan aims to define what is meant by significant gender imbalance and tackle the most extreme examples in the college and university system.

Female under-representation exists in subjects including construction, engineering and IT. There is male under-representation in areas such as childcare, hair and beauty, and early years teaching. The plan also aims to tackle an under-representation of males in the university system.

Not about quotas

Fiona added: “We have asked each institution to identify a set of outcomes it wants to achieve over the next few years and create an action plan. I must stress this isn’t about quotas – what we’ve said is that any class that has a make-up of more than 75 per cent of one gender should be considered as having a significant imbalance and colleges/universities should tackle that through their own gender action plan.

“We recognise a culture change is required and want to help colleges and universities play their part in bringing that about.”

The action plan asks people to consider every element of their operation, from infrastructure and systems to environment, recruitment, and marketing.

“We will publish an annual progress report and are having a gender conference on 4 December at the Hilton Carton, North Bridge, Edinburgh*.

(*More details at

It’s free and we would love to have as much representation from schools as possible,” said Fiona.

“Colleges and universities have made a fantastic start in putting their plans together. Our targets are long term – the aim is to have no significant gender imbalances by 2030. We are tackling societal issues and it will be difficult, but it’s something that must be done.”


Even before the SFC issued its gender action plan, the City of Glasgow College was working with the Equality Challenge Unit, which helps colleges and universities to build an inclusive culture, to increase diversity among the student population.

Graeme Brewster, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager, said: “Among other things, we have introduced ‘Women into’ course provision in construction and engineering, and explored the reasons why high school pupils are reluctant to take particular courses that are introduced.”

Given its size and because its six faculties are at different stages of the journey as far as gender balance is concerned, the college decided that each faculty should have its own action plan and specific targets.

“Some, like Building, Engineering & Energy, have been tackling the issue for several years,” said Graeme.

“Recently, the faculty has arranged open days with taster sessions and industry speakers for S1 and primary pupils. These included finding out from P7 girls what prevents them from coming to college to do engineering.”

The College’s Leisure & Lifestyle faculty is looking at the underrepresentation of men in health and beauty. There is a lack of evidence regarding why men are reluctant to take these subjects. Initially, the faculty is looking to generate that evidence.

In Education and Society, an evening course has been created with the aim of attracting more male applicants.

Meanwhile, in Nautical Studies, where most students are apprentices, the tactic is to make the learning and teaching environment inclusive and work with employers to encourage them to take on non-traditional job applicants.


Graeme emphasised: “We’re looking to improve engagement with students at every level, from school pupils who have still to decide on an area of study to course applicants, existing students, graduates and people who have gone on to employment. We need to work with schools, parents, carers and employers to encourage the increase in diversity.”

He believes there is work to be done outside the college and university sector. “The Scottish Government needs to work with agencies that interact with children from the minute they are born. There are deep-seated cultural factors and attitudes at play here.

“There can be resistance. Some people think it is political correctness gone mad or it is social engineering. However, progress is long overdue and we are determined to play our part.”


New College Lanarkshire is currently refining its gender action plan, placing the focus on individual faculties.

Carolyn Laird, Assistant Principal: Learning and Teaching, said: “We’ve been examining existing good practice, seeing where that can be built on and identifying short-term aims.

“That good practice includes examples such as our Engineering faculty, which has been doing great work with schools, organising engineering, robotics and hands-on sessions for school pupils, particularly encouraging girls to get involved.

"Similarly, the college has had men into childcare courses for several years, and we have created a barbering course that helps introduce men to the idea of hairdressing.”

She says the task involves changing the attitudes of a whole range of people, including employers who provide placements and future employment. “If men are to enter childcare we must have employers who are forward thinking enough to make that happen.”

Signs of progress

Ann Baxter, Assistant Principle: Quality Enhancement at the college, believes there are signs of progress. She said: “There’s been an increase in the number of enquiries from men looking to do hairdressing, which is evidence of a change in social attitudes.

“The issue is complex. In areas like engineering it is an easier message to sell because you are opening up opportunities into well paid careers. In hair and beauty that’s not always the case.”

“We can help break down stereotypes with our students and in our work with schools, employers and other partners. At the same time we can learn from others who are well advanced in the area.”

Carolyn pointed out that one critical issue is the need for funding. “It would be nice if we had support that allowed us to do what needs doing. For example, it would be good to receive funding to work with primary pupils and those in S1 and S2.”

She added that although there has been activity in colleges for some time, the Scottish Funding Council plan has provided a framework and helped to further raise awareness of the issues involved.

“We are pretty much at the start of a new phase on gender equality. It has become a very sharp focus for us and we are taking strategic approach, including working across the region with our assigned college, South Lanarkshire College.

There’s a strong commitment from senior management at the college. We recognise the importance of this work for society as well as the individuals concerned.” 

Teaching Scotland

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Editor contact: Evelyn Wilkins

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