Labour's key manifesto pledge to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education was undermined this week by official figures showing that the proportion has fallen over the past year.
The figures, seen by The Times Higher , show that 42.5 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds participated in higher education in 2003-04, down from 43.6 per cent the previous year.
The trend calls into question whether the Government will meet its stated goal of achieving its target by 2010, particularly in the light of the clampdown on university expansion and continued population growth.
Official figures released last week by the Department for Education and Skills and the Office for National Statistics show that male participation has fallen and female participation has stalled.
The figures are likely to embarrass the Government whose manifesto, launched last week, tells voters: "As school standards rise we maintain our aim for 50 per cent of young people to go on to higher education by 2010."
But despite growing student demand for university places this year, the DfES has threatened institutions that overrecruit with financial penalties.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the vice-chancellors'
umbrella group Universities UK, said that expansion had to come with extra money to protect the amount of funding per student.
She said: "If the next government wants to see a 50 per cent participation rate. it will have to provide income streams for universities that are stable and reliable over the long term."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chair of the Russell Group, said that funding per student should increase before the system expanded.
Michael Driscoll, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities chairman and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "By definition, if they want to get to 50 per cent, they have got to provide the places.
"If they fail to provide the places - not just anywhere but in the right areas where demand is strongest - it calls into question whether they are serious (about the target)."
Opposition parties also criticised Labour's plans.
A spokesman for the Conservative Party said: "This shows what a complete and utter nonsense setting a target is.
"The only criteria for going to university should be the quality of the candidate as judged by an admissions tutor.
"It is ridiculous to try to shovel people in by lowering the academic threshold. We would leave it to the good sense of admissions tutors to decide who they want in their university."
Applications for university courses are up by 8.9 per cent this year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
However, the DfES has threatened to reclaim the cost of student support for every student recruited above the target from the grant it gives to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The funding council has passed this threat on to each higher education institution.
A Hefce spokesman said it expected the 30,000 additional student numbers for 2006-07 and 2007-08 would allow for a small rise towards the 50 per cent target, taking account of the increase in the population growth.