Less prestigious universities may face a crisis in student recruitment after 2010 due to falling numbers of 18 to 20-year-olds, according to a new report.
The Higher Education Policy Institute estimates that by 2010-11 the cohort of 18-to-20-year-olds will be the biggest for a generation. But after that, the number of people in the age group will drop sharply, from 2.61 million to 1.79 million.
According to Bahram Bekhradnia, Hepi director and author of the report, this will mean a likely decline in the number of full-time students in England of about 30,000 a year between 2010 and 2020. At present, there are 900,000 full-time students in English universities.
He said: "Some universities will be badly hit. Universities will do whatever they can not to go bust, but some may have to contract and it will be painful.
"By and large the fairly traditional but not particularly prestigious universities are going to struggle the hardest to keep their student numbers."
The decline in this age group beyond 2010 will be concentrated in the social groups that participate least in higher education, so the effect on student demand will be less severe than would otherwise be the case.
The report also reveals that past changes in Britain's birth rate mean that the Government will miss its target of getting half of all young people into higher education by 2010.
It predicts that 43 per cent of 18-to-20-year-olds, roughly the current participation rate, will be in higher education in England by the end of the decade, short of the 50 per cent target set by Tony Blair in 1999. Scotland's participation rate is already about 50 per cent.
The Demand for Higher Education to 2020 report anticipates that changes in birth rates will mean the number of Britons of student age will rise, making it harder to hit 50 per cent, and then fall over the next 15 years.
Mr Bekhradnia said: "There is no prospect whatsoever of achieving the Government's target of 50 per cent participation by 2010. The prospective failure to increase participation is bad news for this country.
"Government language has changed. It no longer talks about 50 per cent as a target, but about 'working towards 50 per cent'."
The report's findings have been labelled "pessimistic" and "unjustified" by Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister. He said: "We remain committed to moving towards the 50 per cent target."
Boris Johnson, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, said: "The aim of getting more young people to university is right, but we will never achieve 50 per cent or more when only 44 per cent of 15-year-olds are achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C."