SCOTTISH universities have been told to recruit more male students to address a long-standing gender gap.

Funding chiefs have instructed universities to raise participation rates for men after a growing divide since the 1990s - despite acknowledging the policy will "displace" females.

Last year, just 42.5 per cent of Scotland's 141,000 undergraduates were male compared to 57.5 per cent who were female - a difference of some 21,000 students.

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Under a new sector-wide policy the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) wants universities to reduce the participation gap to just five per cent by 2030.

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An SFC report on the issue states: "All universities with an underrepresentation of male students will set out... how they will tackle the underrepresentation of male students.

"There is significantly more work going on currently to tackle female under-representation in certain subject areas than overall male underrepresentation.

"We recognise that to address male underrepresentation could create displacement of some potential female students."

The SFC said universities also need to address a disparity in drop-out rates between male and female students with males from deprived backgrounds much more likely not to finish their courses.

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The SFC's Gender Action Plan adds: "We will therefore develop a strategy specifically focused on male engagement and success and seek to build any additional requirements into institutional action plans.

"We will work with each institution to identify where they have an imbalance between male and female students within completion or retention by subject and encourage them to outline their ambitions to address it... and what action they will take to realise their ambitions."

The plan stems from a Scottish Government drive to improve gender balance in particular subject areas which was launched in 2014 by former Education Secretary Michael Russell.

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As a result that SFC announced earlier this year that Scottish universities and colleges would be given quotas for the recruitment of male and female students in particular subject areas such as engineering and teaching.

Moyra Boland, deputy head of the school of education at Glasgow University, said a crucial aspect of the gender imbalance was the gap in school performance at Higher.

Figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority for last year show female pupils accounted for 55 per cent of entries at Higher and they also enjoyed better pass rates and more A grades than their male counterparts.

She said: "Because entry to higher education is getting tougher universities are choosing candidates who have the highest grades and the greatest potential and in recent years female pupils have outperformed males in school exams.

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"Equity of opportunity is critical, but it is about balancing equity with excellence because universities want to attract the best candidates to their degree courses."

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, added: "The overall underrepresentation of men at university is very concerning and the figures have remained very stubbornly stuck for the last few years.

"Unfortunately, fewer males progress to S6 and significantly lower proportions achieve the set of Highers needed to go on to university. We need to break down the classroom peer pressure that discourages boys, in particular, from doing well at school."

Angela Alexander, NUS Scotland Women’s Officer, added: "The figures in this report demonstrate that the societal injustices that women continue to face, and the gender stereotyping we still find in society, can also be harmful to young men and boys.

"The Gender Action Plan presents clear goals we need to achieve in order to tackle the misguided notion that some occupations are for men and some are for women, and the ingrained sexism that gives rise to that notion, and in turn address the disparity that exists across educational courses, and education as a whole."