The European Union is "worryingly" short of higher education graduates, according to the European Commission.
In a policy paper designed as the basis for a full-scale education report in March, the commission notes that only 23 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women aged 25 to 64 living in member countries have received a higher education.
"This is a worrying situation, given that 80 per cent of all new jobs created between now and 2010 are expected to require higher education qualifications," the commission says.
It expresses concern that private-sector investment in education and training remains inadequate in the EU, with the level being five times higher in the US (2.2 per cent of gross domestic product compared with 0.4 per cent in the EU) and three times higher in Japan at 1.2 per cent.
The commission says that less than 10 per cent of European adults are engaged in lifelong education, well short of the 12.5 per cent target for 2010.
"In view of the expected extension of working life and the ever-growing pace of economic and social change, citizens will have to update their skills more often," it notes.
Meanwhile, a teacher shortage is looming. More than 1 million teachers are needed between now and 2015, yet there is a "real shortage of candidates", the commission says.
European standards in higher education and vocational training qualifications should be part of the solution, it says.
It adds that "the creation of a platform for quality assurance or accreditation in higher education (in conjunction with the Bologna process) should be top priorities for Europe".
This is seen as an "essential step towards creating a genuine European labour market, facilitating mobility and raising Europe's profile in the world".
Without this, says the commission, "the gap between the union and its main competitors is likely to widen still further", jeopardising social cohesion and growth.
The Higher Education Policy Institute estimates that in Britain as many as 250,000 extra university places will be needed if the government is to hit its 50 per cent participation target by 2010.
Growth in the number of 18-year-olds and improvements in school achievement over the next six years will require an extra 150,000 higher education places alone, Hepi said in a report last year.
It predicted that the extra students will want three-year full-time university places, which contradicts the government's plans for higher education through part-time foundation degrees.
Hepi advised the government not to restrict the number of traditional places because the extra students are more likely to reject university altogether rather than settle for a foundation degree.
But the Department for Education and Skills maintained that "expansion should be through foundation degrees because they meet the needs of students as well as the economy".
Prime minister Tony Blair set the 50 per cent target at the Labour Party conference in 1999. The pledge repeatedly refers to the EC figure, which estimates that 80 per cent of all new jobs will require higher education qualifications, as justification for the expansion plans.
The Hepi report said that targets had a limited impact on demand for university places, both in terms of the total number of students and in terms of the type of higher education demanded.