The government will recruit more middle-class students and reclassify qualifications in its drive to fulfil its 50 per cent participation target, it was confirmed this week.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge revealed that reaching the government's 2010 target would not necessarily rely solely on the difficult and expensive task of increasing participation among the country's poorest students.
The government had previously said that meeting the target, set by prime minister Tony Blair at the 1999 Labour Party conference, would necessitate recruiting far more people from poor and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education.
But Ms Hodge, speaking at the education and skills committee on Wednesday, revealed that the government is looking at other ways of meeting the target.
Ms Hodge told MPs that there were a million people in the 21 to 29 age group who had higher education entry-level qualifications at level three, which is equivalent to two A levels, but who decided not to go on to higher education.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which gave evidence to the committee on Monday, estimated that an extra 300,000 students would be needed to hit the target by 2010. This is less than one-third of the potential entry-ready recruits identified by Ms Hodge.
A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research first said that the target could be hit by recruiting more middle-class people who hold level-three qualifications already.
But the minister reiterated the government's commitment to increasing opportunities for disadvantaged groups in line with education secretary Estelle Morris's aim of changing the class balance in higher education.
Ms Hodge, who admitted that she had no idea where Mr Blair's 50 per cent target had come from, said that attracting more poorer students into higher education depended on improved performance in schools and further education colleges teaching 14 to 19-year-olds.
She also said debt and fear of debt were deterrents among poorer people and this was the reason for the government's review of student support.
Ms Hodge confirmed that the government had asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to look at a range of professional qualifications to see if they could be accredited as higher education-level qualifications.
These qualifications, for instance relating to business, healthcare and law, would be included in the calculation of a higher education entry-rate baseline, on which the government will build towards its 2010 target.
Committee member David Chaytor (Labour, Bury North) asked Ms Hodge whether the 50 per cent target could be achieved with no increase in participation by poorer people.
Ms Hodge said: "If we were fiddling the definition we might be closer to the target. What we are in the business of trying to do is to establish a strong baseline."
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