Labour's manifesto pledge to send 50 per cent of young people into higher education risks "obscuring" the Government's wider aim of encouraging learning from infancy to retirement, the Education Secretary said this week.
In her first interview about higher education, Ruth Kelly appeared to play down the significance of the target of 50 per cent participation in higher education among 18 to 30-year-olds by 2010. Tony Blair set the target at the Labour Party conference in 1999.
Ms Kelly told The Times Higher that she would not speculate on whether the target would be met. But she admitted: "I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about how they came up with it in the first place."
She added: "In a way it's a funny measure 18 to 30, and to stop at 30. I don't think it (the target) is artificial, but I do think that it obscures some underlying ambitions that we have - that everyone engages in a culture of lifelong learning. There's a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture.
"We need to think about how we manage to communicate our ambition to have a lifelong learning culture, it's not necessarily about targets - it's about reflecting the fact that there are real opportunities for people out there."
Ms Kelly also told The Times Higher that universities had exceeded her expectations of the student support that would be available when variable tuition fees are introduced in 2006.
The Office for Fair Access had forecast that universities would put £200 million into bursaries. In fact, they have allocated £300 million. Ms Kelly said: "The bursaries (universities) have offered as a proportion of their fee income are higher than we were anticipating, so they will make a huge contribution to enabling young people from poorer backgrounds to get to university."
Ms Kelly endorsed the "excellent idea" of post-qualification applications, although she said that both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would need to agree to a UK-wide system before it was implemented.
She was less forthcoming about the higher education funding gap after 2006 and suggested that universities ought to earn more of their own income.
Universities UK figures suggest that the current funding gap of £2,500 per student will shrink to £1,300 per student once universities receive extra fee income.
Ms Kelly ruled out above-inflation increase in the £3,000 cap on fees before 2010. But when asked if she accepted there would still be a funding gap, she replied: "Just as we have a system of strong autonomous schools, so we have a diverse system of universities, which do different things differently, compete where necessary and collaborate where necessary."
She said there was extra money for research, more cash potentially from overseas students and possibilities for more collaboration with employers.
"I don't think you can take one of these items and say that this is the particular issue. I see a very rosy future for the sector."
Ms Kelly said that she would like to see universities exploit commercial opportunities, such as the "huge potential" in offering professional development courses for industry.
She said that supporting part-time study remained a priority.
Ms Kelly also said she would not pre-empt funding council advice on whether the Government should intervene to prevent course closures in subjects deemed of national strategic importance.