Opposition politicians have denounced the government's 50 per cent participation target as a "con-trick" after details of methodology came to light in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Partnerships for Progression document.
To count towards the target, a young person has to start - but not necessarily complete - a post-A level course that lasts one year or more. Moreover, a projection of the percentage of people aged 18 in 2010 who are likely to experience higher education by the time they are 30 will be used, in effect giving the government an extra 12 years to achieve the 50 per cent target.
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "The exercise is a giant con-trick to cover the tracks of a prime ministerial pledge that was not based on empirical evidence.
"Since 2000, the Department for Education and Skills has been busy trying to work back from 50 per cent in 2010 and create definitions to match.
"The reason we cannot have a debate on the purpose and quality of higher education is because of this millstone."
Hidden away in Appendix E, paragraphs 3 and 4 of Partnerships for Progression , it says: "The targets should align as closely as possible to the overall government target to achieve a 50 per cent participation rate by the end of the decade, as measured by the Initial Entry Rate (IER)I The IER to higher education is the sum of the participation rates of cohorts for each age from 17 up to 30I The rate is based on the whole population for each age."
Tim Boswell, shadow higher education spokesman, said the Conservatives also had problems with the definition of the target. "There is the point about dropouts: the fact that you have darkened the doors once does not mean that you have experienced higher education.
"There's the definition of higher education: calling something the National Health Service University, while it may do something worthwhile, nevertheless does not ipso facto define it as a higher education experience."