By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff
Almost all the extra university places created since the mid-1990s have been taken by women.
University entry figures reveal that the overall rise in student numbers conceals an increasingly sharp gender divide - with the number of male students slipping further behind.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that since 1994 the number of male students has risen on average by less than 1% per year.
In the same period, women student numbers have risen by 42%.
The Hesa statistics, based on UK residents starting university courses, show a clear picture of university expansion being driven almost entirely by women.
And it shows that despite prolonged drives to widen participation, the number of males entering university has failed to break out substantially above the levels already reached in the middle of the last decade.
Males falling behind
The number of women entering university has risen from around 299,000 in 1994 to 427,000 in 2001 - an increase of 128,000 in the annual intake.
But the figures for male students in the same period show only slight increases and some dips in numbers - with the total having risen by 16,000 to around 305,000.
As a proportion of the total student intake, it means that male students have fallen in seven years from around 49% to 41% of those entering university.
The government has a target that at least 50% of young people should enter university by the end of the decade.
But these statistics suggest that if this is to be achieved, universities will either have to find a way to attract more male students - or else they will have an intake which will have an even higher proportion of women.
These figures, from the academic year beginning in autumn 2001, show that 59% of university entrants are women. And according to 2001 figures from the Department for Education and Skills, the overall proportion of young women going into higher education has reached 46.7%.
Since then, female A-level students' have continued to stretch their lead over their male counterparts, and it is considered likely that in the past two years the proportion of female students could have increased even more.
Looking at the corresponding figures on male university students, it shows that despite the drive to widen participation there has been little increase in take up. The most recent figures show that about 40% of young men enter higher education.
There are international precedents for this - where high averages for participation in higher education are driven by a large majority of women going to university.
In New Zealand, 89% of women enter university, compared to 62% of men. In Iceland, 80% of women go into higher education, compared to 42% of men.
Libby Aston, senior researcher at the Higher Education Policy Institute, says that the picture of women's success in entering higher education is a reflection of their continuing success in school.