Prime minister Tony Blair wants 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010. Yesterday, Iain Gray, Scotland's minister for enterprise, transport and lifelong learning, revealed that in Scotland 50.4 per cent of under-21s were already in higher education, up 3 per cent on the previous year.
"That 50 per cent target is not our priority in Scotland," Mr Gray said. "What our priority has to be is widening access, because underlying that excellent participation figure is the more worrying fact that if we look at higher education delivered in higher education institutions, the distribution of social class origins hasn't really shifted."
Mr Gray, who became "minister for everything" in the wake of Wendy Alexander's shock resignation last month, may lack his predecessor's high profile and pizzazz, but he exudes quiet determination and commitment. "What people should look at is my ministerial track record, and I think that has been about delivering."
Delivering on wider access, he hinted, will be spurred on further by finance. But he sidestepped the question of whether this will involve incentives or sanctions. "Widening access will be a priority, and the funding councils will have to take cognisance of that."
Social inclusion was a responsibility rather than a task for any one sector, he stressed, and must involve individual lecturers, not simply designated wider-access officers. "I can certainly remember when I was a teacher, arguing at great length with students who had excellent exam results and clear potential to get them to raise their aspirations."
Mr Gray taught maths and physics in the 1980s in Scottish schools that had no tradition of sending pupils to higher education. He saw at first hand the cultural barriers, pupils' belief that university was not for them and that work was better than study.
"One year we had a very good Higher physics class. Ferranti's took on 100 apprentices and our class disappeared in its entirety," he said. "For some of them, I'm sure they did exactly the right thing, but I'm equally certain that some of them didn't."
He believes it is crucial for people to feel they have choices about whether and when to continue studying. "What we've got to do is to make these choices more explicit and more open so that folk do follow the route that is best for them - and best for us, because the key link between lifelong learning and social justice is about the individual's potential and the way that links to the potential for the country."
Mr Gray also taught in Mozambique for two years at the height of its civil war, during a prolonged drought that led to serious food shortages. Later, as a worker for Oxfam, he travelled extensively in Africa, southeast Asia and South America. The key thing he learnt was that even in the most difficult circumstances, people were prepared to work for a better future, with education at its heart. Oxfam successfully campaigned for debt forgiveness to be linked to investment in education, since this offered the possibility of building a self-sustaining economic future.
"I don't think that's so different for Scotland. I think this administration recognises that investment in education is an investment in the future prosperity of the country, and without that we'll never build first-class public services and social justice."
Mr Gray is consulting on a review of higher education that will involve tackling all the barriers to study, from lack of childcare to inflexible courses. Other key themes are collaboration, relations between further and higher education, the funding councils and the Scottish executive, and the need to improve institutional leadership and management.
He publicly congratulated the Robert Gordon University on its recent move to give job security to all contract researchers. He acknowledges that human-resource management is a matter for individual institutions, but was struck by the way RGU's management and the Association of University Teachers had worked together to achieve the deal. "I think the lesson for other institutions is that this is something it's possible to do, but the way in which it has to be arrived at is through partnership and negotiation."
Institutional heads and representative bodies are responding well to the review, says Mr Gray, "but I do want to get the message out there that we encourage responses from anyone in the sector".
The deadline is July 31.
Details: www.scotland.gov.uk/who/ elld/he_review.asp .
Join the debate on widening participation at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom