The Nineties saw women enter university in record numbers - and they gain a far greater proportion of degrees than men. Should entrance requirements for male students now be lowered to correct this growing imbalance, as some have suggested? Paul Hill reports
Should universities offer places to young men with lower A-level grades than the young women they accept? The debate about fair access to higher education has been cast as an issue of the haves and the have-nots, of privileged independent schools versus bog-standard comprehensives. But while the class divide in England's universities remained static through the mid to late Nineties, another inequality was widening.
Put simply, young women are now far more likely to go to university and to complete their courses than young men. In 1994, an 18-year-old girl was 6 per cent more likely to go to university than a boy of the same age. But by 2000, a girl was 18 per cent more likely get a degree.
Add social class to the equation and a young woman from a disadvantaged area was 30 per cent more likely to enter higher education than a young man from her neighbourhood - although she was still less likely to go to university than a girl from a more affluent part of town. Young men who made it to university in 2000 were two thirds more likely to drop out than women.
Extrapolating from these trends, by the time the children who started secondary school last September enter university there may be 50 per cent more females graduating than males.
However, there is an irony to the sex divide. Although Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee, has said that women are simply "brighter" than men, men are proportionately more likely to be awarded first-class honours.
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University and an adviser to the select committee, suggests provocatively that this aspect of the widening sex divide carries a clear policy implication.
"Social background is the narrative of the moment, but I think this is looking through the wrong lens," Smithers says. "Since the gender difference is larger than the difference between school types - independent and state - should universities be selecting young men on their potential and accepting lower grades, because more young men go on to get a first?"
In the years covered by this study, 1994-96 and 1998-2000, the overall number of students attending university rose and the increase in participation of men was half that of women.
In 1996-98, when the number attending university was static, the participation of women was also static, but male participation fell. About 33 per cent of 18-year-old girls were entering higher education by 2000, while less than per cent of boys followed. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that between 1994 and 2001, the number of women entering university rose from 299,000 to 4,000.
Over the same period, the number of men entering higher education rose by 16,000 to 305,000, with the proportion of male students falling from 49 per cent to 41 per cent.
Back in 1979, men represented a 60 per cent majority in England's universities. The changing pattern may reflect a shift in social and cultural attitudes, as Penny Jane Burke, lecturer in higher education in the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, explains. "Changing social and cultural expectations of women have certainly had an impact on the number of young women who recognise the importance of higher education for their employability and career success," she says.
"There has been a growing body of literature examining boys and schooling that reveals that formations of masculinity are often incompatible with learning and 'being academic'. The kinds of skills required of students could be argued to be more suited to formations of femininity - skills that boys often feel they need to hide to be accepted within their peer groups."
But inequalities remain, Burke says. "Research on gender shows that although more women than men are participating in higher education, different subject and disciplinary areas remain highly gendered in relation to participation, staffing, organisation, curriculum, structure and so on, to the disadvantage of women.
"The curriculum and assessment practices in higher education have not shifted in accordance with new student constituencies. Although increasing numbers of women are participating in higher education, women from lower socioeconomic groups remain underrepresented.
"Many women are studying in lower-status universities; many are mature or part-time students. The university continues to be a space where class privilege is maintained and women's participation is limited to the bottom of a hierarchical continuum."
Smithers points out that changes to the secondary school examination system have also helped nurture girls' academic performance. "Young girls come to school with a greater grasp of words than boys, and that seems to flow through their schooling and they do better at GCSE level. This is partly because the exams now depend on coursework, which also tests consistency and application," he says.
"But it is also about moving away from the idea that women's future is about marriage and having children.
"While university courses that attract women have expanded, traditionally male courses such as engineering and science have contracted."
The divide in performance at GCSE last summer showed that 5 per cent more girls than boys achieved A* and A grades and 8 per cent more girls were awarded C and above.
At A level, 24 per cent of girls achieved an A grade, compared with 21 per cent of boys.
David Miliband, Minister for School Standards when this summer's exam results were published, hinted that the Government was prepared to consider teaching children in single-sex classes in co-educational secondary schools - if it helped to "tailor school organisation to girls' and boys' different needs".
In future, could university admissions be tailored in the same way to the different needs of young men and women?