The importance of broadening participation in higher education is not in doubt but how to achieve it is. Alan Thomson reports.
Higher education must recruit an extra 400,000 people by 2010 to meet the government's 50 per cent participation target.
This is the most accurate estimate available of the task that confronts Estelle Morris's Department for Education and Skills.
The target set by prime minister Tony Blair at the 1999 Labour Party conference is the first participation target of its kind. Whether or not the target is achievable is open to debate, since participation figures can only be estimated.
Unlike similar, calculations for primary and secondary education, where participation is compulsory, participation in higher education involves a life choice that may be affected by a broad range of factors.
Estimates of the extra students required to reach the target vary depending on the source. The Association of University Teachers puts the figure at 700,000, while rival lecturers' union Natfhe believes 100,000 would be enough.
The Institute for Public Policy Research has argued that many of the additional students will be those who already hold entry qualifications but are yet to sign up for university. But it is emerging that this pool of a million or so people will not drive the expansion. The government is instead banking on a strong improvement in GCSE performance over the next eight years. There has been steady progress on this front since 1997.
It is, however, impossible to say how many of the extra students will come from the poor backgrounds that Mr Blair is eager to include. The government, schools and higher education are involved in initiatives to raise the aspirations of young people from these backgrounds, and the government is reviewing its student support policies amid concerns that the system of loans and tuition fees may be deterring poorer applicants.
It is also likely that the proportion from the poorest backgrounds will grow as performance at GCSE and A level and equivalent qualifications improves. But it is by no means certain.
According to government figures, about 41 per cent of people aged between 18 and 30 - about 250,000 people - will enter higher education for the first time this year.
But this figure could be misconstrued because there are, in fact, about 7.7 million people aged between 18 and 30 - 41 per cent of whom would be about 3.2 million. However, the government's 41 per cent calculation is not based on the proportion of total population but on the proportion entering higher education for the first time at each age between 18 and 30, expressed as a percentage of the total population for each of those ages. These proportions are then added together to give a cumulative total for the 18-to-30 age group.
It is akin to saying that two-fifths of 18-year-olds this year, based on current participation rates, will have entered higher education by the time they are 30.
This measure is called the initial entry rate for 18 to 30-year-olds. It is similar to the age participation index that has long been applied to the proportions of school leavers entering higher education.
However, the IER includes part-time entrants, which the API does not, and has been screened by the government to ensure that it is only measuring those entering higher education for the first time. There was little need to do this with the API because it only measured the proportions of 18 to 21-year-olds entering higher education and they would have had little time to have previously entered higher education.
The 41 per cent figure relates to those starting a course defined as higher education. It excludes those taking a postgraduate qualification and those who drop out and then restart the same or a different course later. The DFES defines higher education as all courses lasting one year or more above A level and its level three equivalents and leading to a qualification awarded by higher education institutions or widely recognised as higher education by national awarding bodies.
It has given the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority the task of looking at professional courses lasting less than one year with a view to classifying them as higher education. But the numbers of people on such courses is small and reclassification is likely to make little difference to the expansion calculation.
Almost half of the 250,000 18 to 30-year-olds entering higher education for the first time this year did so aged 18 as school-leavers, almost all of them with A levels or equivalent qualifications.
More than 200,000 of this year's total started their first higher education course aged between 18 and 21 with A level and other level-three qualifications.
The combined IER for 18 to 21-year-olds is around 34 per cent. This means that mature students, aged 22 to 30, comprise only about 7 per cent of the IER.
Increases in the numbers of people aged 18 to 21 will drive most of the expansion as the proportions entering when they are older are too small to make much difference by 2010.
There is a strong correlation between those A-level holders and participation in higher education. About nine out of ten people with two or more A levels go on to higher education.
The correlation is weaker for those who hold equivalent level-three qualifications. About half of them go on to some form of higher education. The half that do not progress to higher level study form part of the pool of people identified by bodies such as the IPPR as a rich source of recruitment.
It is at GCSE level, however, that the engine for expansion is housed. Performance at GCSE has been climbing steadily over recent years. Last year, half of all 15-year-olds passed five or more GCSEs at grades A to C. This had increased from 49.2 per cent in 2000 and 45.1 per cent when Labour came to office in 1997.
It means that the government reached its target of half of all GCSE entrants gaining five or more passes at A to C a year earlier than expected. The government is due to set a new target later this year.
If more pupils gain good grades at GCSE, more are likely to take A levels and vocational level-three courses and pass them. DFES estimates show that, in keeping with current trends, the increase in the numbers passing GCSE, then going on to pass A levels and vocational level-three qualifications will be sufficient to drive a rise in higher education entry. This should ensure that the 50 per cent participation target is reached by 2010.