The education department's top civil servant has admitted that the government has "a mountain to climb" to reach its 50 per cent participation target and has warned that it will be "even more difficult" to ensure the increased participation of excluded groups.
David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, also dampened the hopes of students hoping for an end to tuition fees or the reintroduction of grants as a result of the government review of student support. He hinted that fundamental reform was unlikely. The priority was to simplify the system at the margins, he said.
Mr Normington told a session of the House of Commons' public accounts committee that the 2010 target date was "a long time off but I'm as confident as I can be that we are putting in place the policies to achieve it. We have 41 per cent participation now so there is quite a mountain to climb."
He was being questioned about a report from the National Audit Office, which says that people from poor backgrounds, especially white working-class men, are underrepresented and face barriers to higher education.
Mr Normington said that while the government had "quite a good chance" of meeting the 50 per cent target, widening participation was "the bigger challenge".
The main barriers for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were poor attainment at school and low aspirations, he said. But he accepted that some poor students had been put off going to university by confusing arrangements for support, where students face a means-tested tuition fee supported by loans.
The NAO found that fear of debt, combined with doubts about the benefits of higher education, were deterring students.
Potential students were baffled by a system in which there were 22 different sources of public money to support poorer students and in which they would not know their full entitlement until after joining a university.
Mr Normington seemed to rule out the wholesale reform of the student support system initially promised by ministers. Prime minister Tony Blair said last year that they were looking for "a better way to combine state funding and student contributions".
Mr Normington defended the system of fees and loans as "not that complicated". "It is all the discretionary and hardship funds which are difficult to understand," he said. "There is very little certainty if you are poor that you'll get them. The first aim of the review of student support is to simplify the system, particularly as it relates to all the discretionary funds."
Committee member David Rendel, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, used the meeting to launch an attack on the 50 per cent participation policy as a "gimmick" .
He said the definition of participation had been manipulated to make it easier to meet the target.
"There is a world of difference between 50 per cent of young people 'going' to university and 50 per cent having the 'opportunity' to 'experience' university," he said.