Newly released papers reveal ministers' doubts over flagship policies launched five years ago
Ministers watered down their initial plans to expand student numbers amid concerns about costs and accusations of dumbing down and fears that elite universities might go private if grants were further squeezed, The Times Higher has learnt.
Government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that in February 1999, 10 Downing Street wanted to set a target of 50 per cent participation in higher education among young people by the end of the next Parliament: 2006-07.
But after months of debate in Whitehall, ministers decided to set a less ambitious ten-year goal - stretching to 2010-11 - as part of the Labour election manifesto published in 2001.
The most revealing passages in the bundle of papers are different drafts of a letter that was prepared for David Blunkett, then Education Secretary, to send to Tony Blair in July 1999.
In one draft, Mr Blunkett says: "Too hasty an expansion could also induce a 'pile them high' mentality, which would seriously undermine employers' perceptions of higher education provision.
"Irrespective, we can expect kneejerk gibes of 'dumbing down'.
"For this reason, we need to develop a vocational route within higher education which will be a valued alternative to a first degree."
Officials predicted that it would cost the Government £750 million a year if it were to achieve a target of sending one in two 18 to 30-year-olds to university by 2007.
But they also suggested it would cost the Government less - £450 million a year - if achieving the target were interpreted as youngsters who had turned 18 in 2007 entering university by the time they turned 30 in 2019.
In a second draft, Mr Blunkett warns that, if the Government decides to use the cheaper interpretation of the target, "the difficulty is that this will open us to criticism that we are promising jam in 2019!"
But in the final version, which was sent to 10 Downing Street on July 28, 1999, Mr Blunkett writes: "I propose that we formally announce the target as a major plank of our manifesto.
"This timetable will allow us to decide the speed and nature of expansion and weigh the costs against demographic pressures.
"We also need to consider how to sustain and improve the quality of teaching and research to maintain our international reputation... if we do not get these funding decisions right and unit costs are squeezed too harshly, then one inevitable consequence will be that top universities will want to break away from the existing system."
When Labour's manifesto was published in May 2001, the target had changed to the less ambitious timescale.
Setting the target
The idea of setting a target emerged from a meeting of senior ministers and advisers at No 10 chaired by Mr Blair on February 11, 1999.
It was decided that higher education should be expanded through two-year associate degrees, geared to employability.
According to the paperwork: "We should set a target of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds being able to enter higher education by the end of the next Parliament (subject to a discussion on costs and priorities)."
Seven meetings of a "higher education working group" at the Department for Education and Employment followed, most of which were chaired by Baroness Blackstone, then Minister for Education, and involved key Blair aide Andrew Adonis of the Downing Street Policy Unit.
Through the course of the meetings - which culminated in Mr Blunkett's briefing letter to No 10 of July - civil servants and advisers looked at the implications of the target and the development of what became foundation degrees.
At the second meeting of the group on April 19, 1999, it concluded: "To reach the target we will need 323,000 first-time entrants in England in 2006-07."
By that time, the group was weighing up the impact of demographic changes and the expected increase in the number of 18 to 30-year-olds between 2002 and 2007 - which would make meeting the 50 per cent target more difficult and costly.
At its fifth meeting, on June 2, Lady Blackstone made it clear that the new associate degree qualification was not a replacement for existing diplomas, particularly the higher national diploma.
But the paper trail ends with Mr Blunkett's letter to 10 Downing Street of July 28.
Other than the concerns that emerged in Whitehall between February and July, there is no indication of what changed ministers' minds in the months leading up to the manifesto and 2001 general election.