Let’s start with some objective facts about London: London’s health professionals earn more than their counterparts elsewhere, London’s health students get substantially more financial support than others in England and London offers the greatest range of employers of any region in the UK. With the exception of orthotics and orthoptics, a person can study any field of health, go on to specialise, and then, if they wish, go on to lead the NHS at a national level without leaving home.

All this, however, hasn’t absolved London of a national issue with male participation in health higher education. A new report on this topic, published by the Office for Students, puts male participation in London’s university-level health courses at around 14%. London benefits from a slight boost thanks to paramedical science and mental health nursing, but broadly speaking, male participation is in line with the rest of England.

From our own data, we know that about 2,000 males apply to health programmes in London each year. That represents about .07% of London’s adult male population, or to put it another way, two full underground trains. We also know that nursing is the most popular course choice in London (which is why you’d need 20 trains to ferry the female applicant cohort) – so the question is how certain health disciplines can be so popular yet so unbalanced in terms of gendered participation?

The report commissioned by the Office for Students surfaces a few good reasons why this may be the case. There’s the contestable perception that health professions are low-pay and terminal jobs – and in a high cost city like London, that lowers its attractiveness to those who might feel an expectation to become a ‘breadwinner’. There’s also competition from other highly-paid careers in London, like business, law and IT, which could potentially act as centre of gravity for university-bound male students. But applications for psychology and medicine in London continue to be on the rise (UCAS End of Cycle 2019), so the answer, as the report highlights, isn’t as simple as earnings potential.

The other thing we know from our data is that of the males that are applying to London’s courses, 80% come from BAME backgrounds. London is diverse, but the BAME population in London is closer to 40%. Again, it appears on a national level that males of white ethnic backgrounds may be gravitating towards psychology; the national psychology applicant cohort is just over 20% BAME whereas health is closer to 35% BAME. This could suggest that ‘male participation’ as a concept may differ based on ethnic background, and if so, may require a different approach in London.

One aspect of the report we’d like to address is the notion of tying health interest into other areas of interest, including technology and sports. Our CUREate programme seeks to highlight the potential of creativity as another link into the health disciplines. There are clear links between acting and speech and language therapy, dance and podiatry, visual arts and occupational therapy and so forth, which may broaden the options careers advisors and parents consider in their recommendations, with a strong emphasis on options and not at the cost of encouraging creative study.

Another point from the report we’ll take forward is collaboration with NCOP. We are a division of London Higher as is AccessHE, which leads NCOP’s work for North London. Early interventions matter, and it is clear more could be done to impart accurate information when male students begin to narrow their choices. We will discuss what support would help our NCOP team achieve this.

Finally, what does seem clear from the report is that encouragement from employers and role modelling increases interest. Men from nursing and allied health backgrounds occupy key leadership roles in NHS HEE London, several of our member institutions and in London’s trusts, so the question is how can we use their experience as evidence that the health professions are both inclusive and rewarding. This is not for us alone to do, but we will discuss how we can use the convening power of the London Healthcare Education Group to help share these examples.

The report, Male Participation in Nursing and Allied Health Higher Education Courses, is independent research commissioned by the OfS. A full copy is available here.