End `segregation', colleges told

Education secretary calls for action on gender balance

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Colleges need to tackle the issue of "gender segregation" among students and the under-representation of women on their management boards, the education secretary has said.

In his annual letter to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), Michael Russell said that he wanted it to "proactively address" the issue of certain subjects being dominated by students of one sex. For example, men vastly outweigh women in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths).

He added that the SFC should take the opportunity presented by the regionalisation process to address the lack of women on college boards "as an immediate priority ahead of the 2015-16 academic year".

"I want a renewed focus on reducing gender segregation in participation: too many college and university courses are dominated by either men or women," he added.

Mr Russell also asked the council to use outcome agreements (the documents that set out what colleges should deliver in return for their funding) to drive improvement in this area.

His letter comes only weeks after TESS reported on a speech by University of Glasgow psychologist Dr Gijsbert Stoet, who said that schools should abandon efforts to attract more girls into physics, computing and engineering because those with an aptitude for such subjects would choose them anyway.

Dr Stoet claimed innate differences meant that boys and girls would always be drawn to different subjects and careers, so efforts to try and bridge gender divides were pointless.

But Vonnie Sandlan, women's officer for students' union NUS Scotland, welcomed the education secretary's ideas.

She said: "In too many institutions, across too many subjects, women find themselves excluded and under-represented. That's particularly the case in the Stem subjects. If we're serious about building an economy that works for everyone, then women need to be right at the heart of that and supported in studying those subjects from which they've been missing for too long."

A spokeswoman for the EIS teaching union added that women had been under-represented on college boards for years. She said: "We believe that the wider range of experience and expertise that can emerge from widening access to boards will benefit individual institutions and the sector as a whole." Currently, only two of Scotland's 11 regional college chairs are women.

In his letter published earlier this week, Mr Russell also revealed that funding for colleges in 2015-16 would be pound;526 million. College budgets have suffered severe cuts in recent years, falling from pound;580 million in 2010 to pound;522 million in 2013-14 and remaining frozen at that level for the coming academic year.

The EIS spokeswoman continued: "While the EIS supports the aims of the Scottish government, we would question the adequacy of the level of funding provided to achieve these aims.

"Recent funding cuts have led to lecturers and support staff losing their jobs, and cuts to courses and student places have had a damaging impact on learning and training opportunities for people across Scotland."

Henry McLeish, chair of Colleges Scotland, said that although the funding levels were in line with expectations, it was "still a tough settlement at a time when the sector is facing a number of challenges".

He said: "Under the new settlement, colleges are helping to tackle the problem of nearly 80,000 young unemployed people, delivering the Wood Commission's recommendations, and working in partnership with Skills Development Scotland and the government to tackle the skills challenge.

"The sector is structurally stronger than before, but meeting the needs of students, government and the economy will challenge the sector to work together and identify priorities."

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