Women are less likely to win places in higher education than men although their qualifications are superior, according to unpublished research.
An analysis by Derek Leslie, professor of economics at Manchester Metropolitan University, of 2.3 million applications to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has uncovered this paradox, and attributes it to the growth of "male-oriented" vocational courses.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge signalled this week that two-year foundation degrees would need to be expanded to meet the government's target of 50 per cent participation by 2010. Some 15,000 students are enrolled on foundation courses. This could rise to nearer 50,000, she said.
There are about 100,000 students taking full or part-time Higher National Diplomas.
But Professor Leslie, who will present his findings to the Royal Economic Society this spring, warned that without a rethink, sub-degree courses would fail to attract women with low A-level grades, who have trouble finding suitable higher education courses.
"We need more lower-tier courses that appeal to women," he said. "If new provision duplicates what is on offer, and the lack of provision for women at sub-degree level continues, this will further exacerbate the problem."
The figures, which cover the period 1996-2001, show that male applicants are roughly twice as likely as women to be accepted on vocational courses.
GNVQ qualifications follow a similar pattern. Professor Leslie said: "Once the HND sector is stripped away, degree-level acceptance rates for women are higher, and better female qualifications account for this. Yet overall there is a lower acceptance rate for women - 76.8 per cent compared with 78.4 per cent for men."
Professor Leslie said the problem did not appear to be an issue of discrimination at the point of contact. The answer lay in the growing number of HNDs and foundation programmes dominated by science and technology.
"Segregation is apparent in subject choices, and this opens a whole area as to whether these differences reflect taste or discrimination," Professor Leslie said.
"Subject choices reflect deeply held prejudices about the type of jobs to which women are best suited."
For example, more than 92 per cent of entrants to nursing degree courses were women, but there was virtually no foundation degree or HND provision.
"It would be unfair to hold admissions officers directly responsible for subject choice patterns," Professor Leslie said. "The key factor that accounts for the higher overall male acceptance rate is that the male acceptance rate for those with poor qualifications is considerably higher than that for females."
On average, 10.7 per cent of men are accepted on HND courses, compared with 6.59 per cent of women. "The figures suggest that sub-degree provision is not well suited for low-ability women."
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said the foundation degree was an important stepping stone to higher education and it was vital to avoid restricting its appeal.
"Men and women opt for different subject areas. Men tend more towards the practical and theoretical, which are the areas covered by foundation degrees. The government ought to be looking carefully at widening this agenda. Otherwise, we will waste potential and fail to serve the country's economic needs."
Pam Blackman, director of education partnerships at Lincoln University, which is launching foundation degrees in the arts and health and social care, said institutions had to devise marketing strategies to address the recruitment of women on male-oriented programmes.
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said: "The latest data available, based on a sample of courses in 2001-02, indicate that 48 per cent of foundation degree students were women. Some of the most popular foundation degrees are in teaching-related occupations, which is historically a popular female subject. For example, more than 1,000 childcare workers are currently studying for a foundation degree in early-years studies."