The Government will not meet its pledge to send half of all young people to university by the end of the decade without a "sudden step change" in the numbers of boys and students from poor backgrounds entering higher education, according to new research.
The Higher Education Policy Institute has looked at revised population estimates and concluded that it is unlikely that the Government will hit its manifesto target of sending half of all 18 to 30-year-olds to university by 2010.
To hit the target, Hepi says, boys would need to catch up with the performance of girls at school and close the gap in A-level results.
Although the decline in boys' performance may have stabilised in the past two years, "there is no sign that it has begun to reverse", Hepi has concluded.
A rise in the number of working-class undergraduates or of slightly older students would help move towards the 50 per cent target, Hepi reports, although "the situation had scarcely improved in the past decade or so".
Hepi has drawn no conclusion about the likely impact of the new tuition fees and bursary regime.
Asked about the 50 per cent target, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi, told The Times Higher : "There would need to be a sudden step change in A-level take-up by boys and by poor students."
He said the target might be achieved if there were a rise in 21 to 30-year-old students. But he said that this was unlikely because their share of the student body had fallen over the past ten years.
"So the 50 per cent target is not going to happen by 2010, and unless these things happen - and at present, there is no sign that they will - it is not going to happen by 2015 either," he said.
Based on demographic projections, Hepi predicts that between 2004-05 and 2010-11, the total number of students will rise by at least 70,000, or by up to 97,000 at most. The forecasts are based on a low and a high estimate of future A-level participation and growth in the number of European Union students.
After 2010, there will be a steep decline in the number of 18 to 21-year-olds, who represent 70 per cent of all higher education entrants.
Thus, Hepi forecasts that student numbers will rise by just 63,000 or 36,000 between 2004-05 and 2015-16.
Assuming a constant unit of funding per student, Hepi predicts that the cost to the Government of the rise in student numbers by 2010-11 will total £600 million if the high estimate is borne out or £450 million if the lower trends proved to be the case.
Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group of research universities, added: "Even when the income from the new tuition fee regime comes on stream, we will still not have caught up with funding in the US."
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, the umbrella group representing post-92 universities, added: "The Government is in danger of losing the plot. Ministers must ensure that universities that provide widening participation and part-time provision - including their local communities and first-generation students - are fully funded."