One statistic which is embedded in the consciousness of higher education policy-makers and even more so of those at the sharp end in universities and colleges is that the age participation rate - the proportion of 18 to 19-year-olds in the population entering higher education - doubled from 15 per cent to 30 per cent in just six years between 1987 and 1993.
This remarkable achievement - funded entirely at public expense - has been possible in part because of a decline in the size of that population. The reduction in the total number of 18 to 19-year-olds meant that although the proportion of the population entering higher education doubled, the actual number of 18 to 19-year-old students increased by just over 50 per cent in the same period. The increase in the APR has now been halted. The age cohort is increasing again, and even maintenance of the APR means an increase in the number of students from that age group.
The Government's current policy of consolidation is not based on a view of a correct level of APR, but on a view of what level of public expenditure can be afforded (a different funding regime where the state was not bearing all the costs might allow a more relaxed view of an increasing APR).
However, the policy of consolidation - financially driven as it is - may be irrelevant to the halt in the increase in APR. Neither last year, which was the first year in which numbers were constrained, nor this, does there appear to be a significant body of unsatisfied qualified student demand - so much so that the University and Colleges Admissions Serivice reports that 40,000 qualified students have decided against entering higher education immediately; and we have the silly season stories that some universities are scraping the barrel and accepting unqualified candidates in order to maintain numbers. What is going on, and does it matter?
On the face of it, compared with the experience of other western countries, the decline in demand is surprising, and by the same token the increase in the APR to 30 per cent is not. France, Germany, the United States and almost any advanced western nation you care to consider have long had APRs far higher than the recent English rates of 10-15 per cent, and indeed almost all continue to have participation rates higher than our present 30 per cent.
If western societies are becoming increasingly homogeneous - and I believe they are - this was bound eventually to be reflected in the appetite for higher education in this country. But even as we were entering into a period of consolidation around 30 per cent APR, the French, and now the Germans, announced a target of 80 per cent participation.
Does this really mean that the Germans and the French believe that 80 per cent of the population can achieve traditional degree level standards? Or does it imply reduction of those standards? Does it mean higher education for the educationally sub-normal and remedial degree courses in these countries?
It certainly does not. It means that they are talking about something other than traditional higher education; and so should we.
If we are not prepared to differentiate, then we keep coming up against limits. There are economic limits - the economic benefits of degree level study (for society, if not for the student) are unproved, and there are economic constraints on the public expenditure which the Government is prepared to make.
There are limits on the provision that can be made without damage to standards - making the same provision for the top 15 per cent of ability as for the top 40 per cent, 50 per cent, or 60 per cent is bound to lead to a lowering of standards. If it does not then we encounter a limit to the ability of students to benefit from traditional degree level provision. The need here is to differentiate between students and what is appropriate for them. The traditional APR measure is framed in terms of the traditional three to four year serial degree course, whereas we need courses for horses.
One of the problems may be that appropriately differentiated courses do not yet exist or, more likely, because of problems of esteem (or ignorance) there is a reluctance to supply appropriate courses, or to pursue them.
It is because of the continuing view of higher education as a single and undifferentiated activity that we have the outcry in some of the more excitable parts of the press about universities for dunces (which we ought anyway to treat with scepticism until we have the results of the Higher Education Quality Council survey). In any case, why should it matter? If universities are taking marginal students who would not otherwise come into higher education, and with an introductory year can turn them into good quality students with good degrees, is this not a cause for celebration? Well, perhaps not celebration all round.
First, there is the Treasury's problem that it costs 30 per cent more to get them to degree standard - a cost which would be much reduced if they were given their remedial year at school, or FE college; and second the question is begged about the quality of the output at a time when the issue of standards has not been settled.
The timing of this storm in a teacup is unfortunate, and may be a case, once again, of a small number of universities shooting the whole system in the foot. But, coming back to the question of the APR, why should it be an issue? I believe in a very real sense that it should not. The APR measures only 18 to 19-year-olds entering higher education. First, it does not measure the percentage graduating - and surely that is as important, if not more important, a measure.
Despite our low participation rates we have had a higher graduation rate than almost any other country in the western world. Ours has, in effect, been a highly-efficient system, and many are concerned that as we move to a system with higher intakes and lower per capita resources, this efficiency will be lost. In part it was this fear that caused the funding council to say, in its evidence to the Secretary of State's review of higher education, that there should be no further growth without equivalent funding until the effects of the recent reductions in resources have been analysed and understood.
But much more important is that concentration on 18 to 19-year-olds entering full-time higher education ignores the increasing importance of all the other participants in higher education - mature students, part-timers and students returning to higher education throughout their working lives for courses and parts of courses to top up an initial education.
Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson have estimated that, even now, 60 per cent of the population will participate in higher education at some point in their lives. Although this is almost certainly an overstatement, it is based on an important truth. What is increasingly asserted, and is almost certainly right, is that we need to turn into a learning society.
There is a need for a foundation on which to be able to continue education for the rest of our working lives and beyond. And this implies not just an extension of educational opportunity at 18 (though this is necessary), but continuing education beyond - at all levels. This is far more important than any specific percentage APR. I happen to think that education is a good thing in its own right.
I rejoice that sixth-form staying-on rates have increased, and with them A level and General National Vocational Qualification participation (and incidentally the success of the GNVQ as an alternative and distinctive route may provide lessons for higher education - instead of giving students more of the same, give them something different, and something more appropriate to their abilities).
But why stop at the sixth form? If students do not continue immediately into higher education - and the APR is only a measure of those who do - no matter.
The important thing, from their own point of view and that of the country, is that they should do so in due course. It is on this, and on our success in generating ad meeting such demand, that we ought to be concentrating, not on any particular figure for the APR.
Bahram Bekhradnia is director of policy of the HEFCE, but this article is written in a personal capacity.