A blip has now turned into a trend so alarming that efforts to increase higher education participation are increasingly being concentrated on attracting the missing males, before a generation of potential is lost.
"If we are not careful, we are going to arrive at a position where lads are alienated, they are underskilled and, given everything we say about the nature of the knowledge economy and the premium that will be placed on graduate skills, they will find themselves disadvantaged in the labour market," says Professor David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
But it is a hard problem to tackle, not least because there is little consensus and not a great deal of research on why girls are grabbing the opportunity of higher education with both hands but many boys - overwhelmingly those from working-class backgrounds - are not.
A recent report from the Sutton Trust, which helps provide educational opportunities for children from under-privileged backgrounds, shows that 67 per cent of secondary-aged boys are considering university, compared with 76 per cent of their female classmates.
The trust is now planning more research and is taking part in a trial with the Government into whether US-style Standard Assessment Tests, which measure ability, would be useful for university entrance.
One man who knows more about the conundrum than most is Neil Raven of Aimhigher, the university-funded campaign to widen participation among both sexes. His East Midlands area is now running nine year-long projects focusing exclusively on boys, which it is hoped may provide a key to improving the situation, by creating a reservoir of good practice and useful information. The projects are based on Dr Raven's extensive research into boys' attitudes to university.
"There's quite a significant difference. Whereas 10 years ago there were more males, there are now more females and the gap has opened in the past decade," he says. "One measure is the number of first year full-time undergraduates: females have increased 33 per cent since 1994-95, whereas the number of males has been almost unaltered."
Aimhigher usually works with pupils over four years, where pupils spend time at a local university, meet students, focus on what they could achieve at GCSE, are taught study and revision skills, and learn about the benefits, including a higher salary, of getting a degree.
Dr Raven says that the shortage of boys wanting to go to university is not an across-the-board problem. "What we do know is that a large number of males from higher economic and social groups do progress to higher education. The real problem is with lads from lower socioeconomic groups. From 2002 to 2006, the number of girls from these backgrounds applying to higher education increased - but the number of boys didn't." The obvious question is why. Aimhigher ran focus groups to try and illuminate the problem.
"Boys have a limited perception of what university is. It is associated with passive learning, sitting and listening and long boring lectures," Dr Raven says. "There is also a view of a very narrow range of occupations - you might be a lawyer or an accountant. No one ever associates university with enjoyment or fun or social networks. Also there is a tendency to stereotype - those who go to university do it because they are smart. This came across strongly in one focus group, the view that girls are more intelligent and it's easier for girls to concentrate. It's a fairly negative perception of education."
The focus groups also asked what kind of activities the boys enjoyed: answers included PE, science when there were experiments to do, and English, especially when there was drama or role-playing involved.
So Aimhigher tries to get the message across to boys that university can involve interactive learning. It starts early, at 13 or 14, by matching their interests. And young role models are important, often male students from similar backgrounds who can talk about their experiences.
"I came from a single parent background. Absent father, working class, deprived area," says Naj Mistry, who now works for Aimhigher in Northamptonshire after being one of its student ambassadors
"My sister is a year older than me and when she wanted to go to university I didn't understand why. I thought: 'we're not rich, we're not university people.'
"I was a C-D grade student and pushed myself to get A-levels. Going to university changed my perceptions. I loved it. I tell the kids what happened to me. I always drop in my background. It gives them something to think about. What they want is something different from school - they don't want to be told what to do, they want to be shown what they can do."
Philip Burch, Aimhigher's Northampton manager, is masterminding one of the Boys Into HE projects, which includes "lads and dads" days at sporting venues such as Silverstone racing track. The idea is that the pair can enjoy an interesting day out while learning more about university opportunities.
"We'll do a tour of the changing rooms at Silverstone, go into the pits and do a pitstop challenge," he says. "And we'll be talking about higher education. If they're interested in Formula One, we'll talk about how people become engineers, how high performance engines are related to aeronautics, how racing drivers are supported by huge backup teams, many of whom will need higher qualifications and so on. Hopefully the boys will be forming these links and the parents will be too.
"We'll be showing the whole range of occupations behind sportsmen: PR team, ground team and management team. They can be associated with lots of competitive sport.
"When we've done things like this with parents, they've said: 'we really enjoyed this, it wasn't like this at school'."
Parents are a vital part of the jigsaw. Dan Hadfield, who is running another boys' project based on English and drama, says even when they are working with "very capable students" their parents do not think they could go to university. Naj agrees: "The parents will say: 'They're not that smart. They'll only get four or five Cs.' I don't think parents grasp the system. They can't see what their child is capable of."
The boys - 10 from each of four schools on each project - are chosen for their potential and Mr Burch says the Aimhigher process is to remove some of the barriers - actual or perceived - preventing them from going to university.
The message is that university can be for them if they want to be successful and they are prepared to work and that work needs to start in their early teens, or it may be too late to get the grades.
Julian Mann, assistant head at Weston Favell School in Northampton, says: "The biggest job at this age is getting them looking forward to the sixth form, then we can begin to raise expectations. Then they are among other pupils who are saying there's no point stopping after A-levels. It's about getting them switched on a bit earlier. Boys' ethos is they want to get out and get earning. Girls take a long view. Boys want instant gratification."
Creating aspiration is vital. Michael Hatfield, assistant head at the Middlefield School of Technology in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, has been involved with Aimhigher for some time and has boys in the English and drama project. "The first time we took pupils to London we got there and the pupils were saying: 'look at the shiny cars!' and 'look, there's a BMW garage'. I thought Trafalgar Square was going to be a big thing but some of them had never been in a city. It's raising aspirations."
Michael has another, slightly more surprising view of why working-class boys don't push themselves forward for university: fear. "When we have trips away, we've found the boys never want single rooms. They always want to share with a mate."
This kind of worry is well known to the Aimhigher team. "If no one in the family has been into higher education it is difficult for them to put their head above the parapet and say: 'I want a slice of that action'," says Philip. "We tend to err on the positive side and look at advantages of going to university. They worry about moving away from home, making new friends and whether they will be good enough."
He adds: "Debt is a concern. We get them speaking to people experiencing the student loan. They're told they haven't got to pay anything back until they're earning about pound;15,000.
"Parents are more concerned about finances. They don't want kids to get into debt, particularly working-class kids. We say this is going to be the cheapest money they'll ever borrow."
One final bit of motivation may have been overlooked. Dr Lee Elliott Major, research director of the Sutton Trust, says Sir Peter Lampl, its founder, has a favourite joke for how male applications for its university summer schools might be raised from the current one-third. "He jokes that if boys knew they'd be outnumbered 2:1 maybe they'd be willing to go."
Why boys don't go to university - the theories
- Boys don't plan ahead.
- Boys are inherently lazy.
- Boys don't have the social or language skills of girls.
- Anti-study culture.
- Feminisation of the school curriculum.
- University expansion may have favoured girls because extra places are often in female-friendly courses.
- Working-class boys may come from families without positive experiences of education or without experience of university.
- Boys may feel they have to go out and earn.
- Boys might find it easier to get a job straight out of school (perhaps as a mechanic or a builder) than a girl might think she can.
'It doesn't do it for me'
What do boys think? We asked three boys on the Aimhigher HE Men project at Weston Favell School.
- Joel Mahon, 15: "I don't really want to go to university. It doesn't do it for me. Two of my uncles went, and they talked to me about it but didn't manage to persuade me.
"I don't know what I want to do when I leave school. I dunno about A-levels. I want to earn money. They get us thinking about all the aspects, things I could probably study."
- Savan Haria, 15: "I think it's quite good and my parents are pushing me a bit. I do hope to go to university because I want to be a musician. I want to study music. My brother is going to university next week."
- Johnny Hadwyn, 14: "I'm not really fussed at the moment. I'll get school over and done with and see what happens. My dad and uncle went. I haven't thought about it being fun."
Since these interviews were conducted, Savan and Johnny have both dropped out of the Aimhigher programme.
The Government wants 50 per cent of young people to go into higher education by 2010.
2006 figures show 47 per cent of 17 to 30-year-old women went to university compared with 37 per cent of young men; 57 per cent of first degree graduates are women.
In June 2007, the Higher Education Policy Institute said that boys' poor performance at school is threatening the 50 per cent target and there is little sign of improvement.