Leading article: Unequal opportunities

If Caroline Flint MP is to be believed – and there is at least a grain of truth in what she says about the decorative position still occupied by women in politics, as in many other walks of life – women still face difficulties in making their voices heard at the top national tables on an equal footing with men. As far as participation in higher education goes, however, female inequality has become a thing of the past. How thoroughly the gender balance of this key sector has shifted is shown in a report just published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Its findings show that women are now ahead of men on every recognised indicator. It is not just that the proportion of young women going on to higher education now exceeds the proportion of men, but that the gap is substantial – 49 per cent of women compared with 38 per cent of men – and widening. Nor are women any longer concentrated in the less-prestigious institutions or studying so-called lower-status subjects. There are more women than men studying medicine and law, and achieving better grades. One result, as was reported last week, is that the medical profession is becoming "feminised"; the same applies to some branches of the law.

Among higher education establishments, the only exceptions are the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. But even there women have drawn level, from a comparatively low start. A female majority graduating from Oxbridge can only be a matter of time.

In very many respects, this is a success story. It is striking that, with 49 per cent of their number going on to higher education, girls have almost reached the Government's 50 per cent target. If boys were doing as well as girls, this target would be more realistic than it often seems.

That more young women are now gaining the qualifications to enter the professions and take higher-paying jobs may well reflect the emphasis placed on girls' performance. In education, at least, girls can no longer be seen as disadvantaged. That is enormous, and cheering, progress. It also fosters hope that the gender imbalance in the nation's top jobs will, in time, be rectified.

The question at the heart of these findings, however, is whether girls' success might not have been "bought" at boys' expense. Have modifications to the curriculum, including the greater weight now given to coursework as opposed to formal exams, perhaps played to the strengths of girls and so penalised boys? Do good results at school nurture greater confidence in girls that then enhances their performance further down the line? Are boys now the disadvantaged sex?

There may indeed be lessons to be learned from the successful efforts made to raise attainment among girls, in such areas as capturing interest and encouraging diligence. The decline in traditional male employment might also be a factor, with boys having to adjust to a world that needs different skills. In the short term, the achievement gap that has opened up could help redress the historical under-representation of women at senior levels. In the longer term, though, it is clearly undesirable if half the country's young people – whichever half – are failing to reach their potential. Researchers and policy-makers have a duty to establish not just what is happening, but why, and to suggest ways in which adverse trends can be remedied.