Universities and colleges will open their doors to thousands more higher education students under government plans to create a high-skills workforce.
Prime minister Tony Blair has called for a minimum 50 per cent higher education participation rate among 18 to 30-year-olds by the end of a second Labour term of office, probably 2007.
The Department for Education and Employment has been asked to develop ways of achieving the target and officials are working out how many more students the expansion will mean for universities and further education colleges that offer sub-degree higher education qualifications.
New figures from the DFEE show that 45 per cent of all people aged between 18 and 30 have already taken, or are on, a full or part-time higher education course. These are provided in universities as well as higher and further education colleges and can be at degree and sub-degree level.
A department spokeswoman confirmed that expansion beyond 2002 - by which time an extra 100,000 people will be in higher education - would focus on people aged between 21 and 30 who wanted to study part-time. Sources said that more flexible part-time provision would minimise disruption to people's careers or personal lives.
The target appears achievable even given full-time participation rates. A third of school leavers aged 18 to 20 enter higher education. The government wants to raise this to 35 per cent by 2002.
An extra 7 per cent of people enter higher education between 21 and 24. The combined full-time participation rate for 18 to 25-year-olds is 40 per cent.
Tony Bruce, director of policy for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which launched a short-lived campaign for expansion last week, said: "We strongly welcome what the Prime Minister has said. If the momentum is maintained beyond 2002 then the kind of rates of participation Mr Blair is talking about will be achieved."