Ministers may have mixed feelings about the sharply reduced projection of future demand for university places published by the Higher Education Policy Institute. The report suggests that meeting the Government's 50 per cent participation target by 2010 will be virtually impossible, but at least it will not be necessary to fund up to 250,000 extra places to keep pace with demand. Manifesto commitments notwithstanding, meeting the target over a longer period might not be unwelcome, given the doubts expressed by Ruth Kelly since her appointment as Education Secretary.
The target has always been justified in largely economic rather than social terms, so perhaps the Government should be more concerned about the number of graduates emerging from universities and colleges than the proportion that this represents of any particular age group. In the next decade, as a demographic downturn hits higher education, the current target may be too modest to meet the needs of the economy. Increased participation will depend mainly on the response of teenage boys, who are not only underperforming at school but who are also the most susceptible to populist campaigns for more plumbers and fewer undergraduates. They remain a key - but largely forgotten - element of the crusade to widen participation in higher education.