The writer with her Form Four students from SMK Taman Sea.

AN old photo resurfaced through Facebook’s “On This Day” feature that highlights past posts when I logged on a few days ago. It was a photo of me as a class teacher with my 16-year-old students taken for the school magazine more than 20 years ago.

I was just into the second year of my teaching career when I was entrusted with this class of 38 students.

Looking at the photo, I realised that the majority in the class were boys, while there were only 12 girls. As I am only friends on Facebook with a small number of them, mostly girls, I could not help wondering where the boys are now, who would be in their late 30s today.

Last week, at a seminar on Southeast Asia organised by the Centre for Higher Education Research, Sunway University, and Jeffrey Cheah Institute, it was presented that one challenge facing inequality in higher education is the significant gender gap, where females are outperforming males at every level of education.

The fall in the proportion of male students, leading to an increasing gender imbalance in higher education, would have been unimaginable a few decades ago when boys stayed longer in school and were more likely to graduate from university than girls.

There might be media attention on this issue that has been extensive in recent years, but there’s no public outcry as much as the way there was for girls earlier.

After decades of special attention, there has been a vast improvement for women in terms of education and employment. The passage of equal opportunity and gender equity has lead to girls graduating from universities and going into professions and businesses in record numbers.

While the number of females graduating from schools and universities is soaring in many countries globally, it looks like today, it is the boys who could use a little help.

According to an OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) report in 2015, young men are significantly more likely than young women to have low levels of skills and poor academic achievement, and more likely to leave school early, often with no qualifications.

Fifteen-year old girls have higher expectations for their future careers than boys.

Malaysia, too, is not spared from this global phenomenon of reverse gender gap.

Universiti Sains Malaysia’s National Higher Education Research Institute deputy director Associate Professor Munir Shuib, during the seminar, said despite initiatives by the government to promote equal access to higher education, the gap between males and females is widening.

In his presentation titled “Boys in Malaysian Higher Education Institutions: Where Art Thou?”, he said “the beginning of the lost boys” in Malaysia could start as early as during the five-year period in secondary school.

Based on statistics, there was a decrease of 15.4 per cent in the enrolment of boys in Form Five in 2015, compared with the enrolment in 2011, which was the year they entered secondary school at Form One. On the other hand,the decrease was just eight per cent for girls. Boys are less likely to enter higher education and more likely to drop out.

At universities, the gender gap by subject also shows more female enrolment in seven of eight major fields of study, including science, mathematics and computing, in which men have always held the traditional advantage. Males are mostly in engineering, manufacturing and construction,

making 56.4 3 per cent of the number in these fields.

We have a crisis in the education of boys, but are there any clear policy recommendations on what to do about it?

Are there systemic changes in place?

Munir said greater emphasis on TVET (technical and vocational education and training) through apprenticeship programmes, equivalent to degrees and vocational qualifications, are suitable for those who are not as academically minded. Already, he added, colleges and polytechnics have a higher percentage of male enrolment today. Additionally, he said, “search and rescue” programmes could be university recruitment targets for male students, such as the outreach projects for other underpresented groups.

Our boys need attention, and there are a number of characteristics that differentiate the two genders. There are suggestions that young men develop more slowly. Once in the classroom, boys long to be out of it. They are less likely to work hard at school, less likely to read for pleasure and more likely to have negative ideas about school and completing homework.

Examinations and sustained efforts at coursework in schools are in favour of girls.

There is also a question whether young men are not getting enough education role models, with the teaching profession becoming increasingly female. Maybe having more male teachers would help close the gender gap.

Some argued that if boys have the wrong male role models, they will hold less positive attitudes toward the value of education. And so, it would be interesting to know how far the boys in my class made it academically.

Before it is too late, we should start to be serious and work on efforts to put boys on an equal footing with girls. We need to steer boys away from a version of masculinity that ignores academic achievement, while at the same time also look into creating an education system that has a greater understanding and appreciation for who boys are and how they learn best. More hands-on activities will go a long way for the natural restlessness of boys. Harnessing male energy in positive ways will make schools boy-friendly.

If we do not address boys’ education needs early in their life, things will only get worse. We cannot afford to lose the potential knowledge-makers and innovators of the male gender.

Hazlina Aziz left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom. As NST’s education editor, the world is now her classroom