The head of the English funding council has asked universities to consider the shortage of men taking degree courses, as well as women's poor progression into university management, when reviewing their diversity policies in the light of forthcoming legislation.
David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), said that the Equality Bill provided an opportunity to "take stock" of "a constantly shifting agenda".
The Bill, to be included in the Queen's Speech in November, aims to simplify the law by bringing together all existing anti-discrimination legislation into a single Act. As currently proposed, it would allow positive discrimination to address underrepresentation of groups in the workplace.
Speaking ahead of an Equality Challenge Unit conference on equality in higher education on 4-5 November, Professor Eastwood said: "Alongside the challenge of progression of women into senior positions, we now have differential performance of girls and boys at GCSE and A level, and we have to consider the impact that will have on progression into higher education. We have to recognise that new challenges are emerging all the time."
He said that gender differences in the admission of students to university should inform the ways in which higher education institutions work with schools to encourage progression.
"We need to look at modes of assessment to ensure that they are equally appropriate to boys and girls, and at the full range of opportunities. Just because boys don't progress to higher education doesn't necessarily mean they are not moving on appropriately, to apprenticeships for example. It's important to have a system-wide perspective."
Asked if universities should review admissions policies in the light of differential admissions, Professor Eastwood said they were constantly doing so. "All the evidence is that early intervention is pivotal in ensuring progression," he said.
At the November conference, which is supported by Times Higher Education, Professor Eastwood will tell the sector that it is making "progress in the right direction".
"We are in a better position than we were a decade ago," he said. But he added that there were still "major challenges", particularly underrepresentation of ethnic-minority staff at higher levels.
He said Hefce was committed to tackling these and pointed to Hefce-funded diversity initiatives such as Oxford Brookes University's project on age diversity, Imperial College London's study of women in academic medicine, and a network of equality advisory groups piloted by Liverpool John Moores University.