Universities have been asked to create ways of counting students that will help the government to reach its 50 per cent participation target, it was claimed this week.
Opposition politicians said that officials at the Department for Education and Skills contacted Universities UK and some leading research universities and asked them to devise ways of counting students to inflate total figures.
The DFES is trying to define which students and courses count as higher education. It needs to have an accurate figure to know how many more students must be recruited to hit the 50 per cent target set by prime minister Tony Blair.
Ministers have asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to look at professional courses lasting less than a year. These courses are not currently counted as higher education qualifications.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis accused the government of fiddling the figures to make the target more easily achievable. He urged the government to abandon the "arbitrary" target and concentrate on tackling student debt and university underfunding.
The government is keen to exploit the numbers of young people who opt for vocational courses. A green paper on 14 to 19 education is due to be published at the end of this month. Whitehall sources said the aim was to open up higher education to the needs of employers and students with vocational qualifications.
Revamped modern apprenticeships will provide a springboard to foundation degree courses. Foundation degrees are already classed as higher education qualifications.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, did not know of any approaches by DFES officials. But she said: "The key issue is attracting people with no background of, or current aspirations to, study in higher education. Universities UK supports the government's 50 per cent participation target. We believe that it is for government to define the terms of that participation."
Andy Powell, chief executive of the National Training Organisations's national council, warned against attempts to hijack vocational training structures as a vehicle for meeting higher education targets. He said: "It is highly damaging to allow these routes, which offer vital career options to many young people, to be perceived as second-class options or a 'backdoor route' to university."
Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, hoped that an improved vocational education structure would give employers a bigger role in higher education.
A DFES spokesman said: "There is no suggestion that standards will be lowered in order to reach the 50 per cent target by changing definitions."