The proportion of students from state schools entering university has fallen for the first time in five years. The figures released today throw into jeopardy Tony Blair's plans to widen access to higher education.
And to add to the bad news for the Government's education policies, dropout rates among first-year university students also soared and truancy rates in schools reached record levels.
The three sets of figures, released in the approach to next week's Labour Party conference, will be an embarrassment for the Prime Minister - who famously pledged that "education, education, education" were his top three priorities in 1997. Higher education league tables published today show many of the elite Russell Group - including Oxford and Cambridge - have recruited a smaller percentage of state school pupils. This is despite ministers pumping £300m into encouraging universities to widen recruitment.
The findings prompted headteachers' leaders to call on the Government's university admissions watchdog to "sharpen its claws". They want the newly created Office for Fair Access (Offa) to use its powers to "fine" universities that fail to reach targets for increasing state school participation. It has the right to withdraw permission from universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year, which come into force next September, if they fail to act to meet their targets.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "These are very disappointing figures and suggest universities have got to do a lot more."
Most of the Russell Group, which represents the top 19 research institutions, lag way behind benchmarks for the recruitment of state school pupils set by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), which compiled the university performance tables.
Vice-chancellors argue that the targets are "meaningless".
Oxford saw its percentage of state school recruits fall from 55.4 per cent to 53.8 per cent in 2003-04 - leaving the university with the largest gap (21.4 per cent) between performance and benchmark. Cambridge fell 18.4 per cent behind its benchmark - with its state school recruits for the same year falling from 57.6 per cent to 56.9 per cent.
Throughout UK universities, the percentage of state school recruits fell from 87.2 per cent to 86.8 per cent last year - even though the number recruited from areas with little history of university attendance rose from 13.3 per cent to 13.9 per cent.
Universities argue that the percentage of recruits is now rising again. A spokeswoman for Cambridge said: "We are fully committed to widening participation and breaking down the barriers that prevent talented young people from aspiring to study at Cambridge."
But the slump in today's tables follows four years of a steady rise in state school recruits from 84.9 per cent in 1999-2000.
The Hesa tables also show a rising dropout rate among students in their first year at university. Higher education sources put forward two reasons for the rise. They said the increase in overall student numbers meant that applicants with lower qualifications were being recruited , and finding it more difficult to keep up. In addition, student leaders believe rising debt levels may have forced some undergraduates to quit - a fact they find alarming in the year before top-up fees are introduced. Figures show the dropout rate rose from 7.3 per cent to 7.8 per cent last year - with students on courses such as engineering and technology the most likely to quit.
Officials were at pains to point out that the benchmarks were not official targets, but every university has had to reach agreement with Offa on targets for widening participation to get permission to charge higher fees.
Bill Rammell, the minister for Higher Education, insisted that "the trend remains broadly in the right direction". But he added: "It's also clear that there's more work to do if higher education is to be opened up to all those who have the ability to benefit from it."
Today's figures mask an increase in the actual number of young state school students going to university - from 182,435 to 183,375. However, if the percentage intake had been maintained at least a further 1,000 would have been recruited - raising the spectre that independent schools had most benefited from the drive to increase participation at university.
n Students will have the power to hasten the closure of university courses with poor teaching standards as a result of a new website set up today, ministers say. Respondents can give every course at every university in the UK (outside Scotland) a ranking on a scale of one to five for teaching standards.
Truancy rates rise by 10% to highest level ever recorded
Record numbers of children played truant from school in the past year, as rates soared by 10 per cent.
About 55,000 pupils are skipping lessons each day as the official truancy rate - measured in terms of percentage of half-days off taken by pupils - rose by 0.07 per cent to 0.79 per cent.
The increase, a rise of 4,500 a day on the previous year, was the highest since records were first compiled a decade ago and comes despite ministers spending £885m on measures to improve behaviour and attendance at schools.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described the figures as "extremely disappointing". He said: "Sadly, there is a small group of parents who do not respect education and they come not just from deprived circumstances but from among the better off as well."
But the overall absence rate fell from 5.08 per cent to 5 per cent - suggesting that headteachers were cracking down on absences.
This is in line with ministerial advice to heads calling on them to refuse permission to parents to take their children out of school for cut-price holidays in term time.
Overall, the number of children in school every day has risen by 8,000 - a figure which headteachers' leaders described as "a more reliable statistic". Jacqui Smith, the Schools minister, announcing the figures, said: "It is disappointing that a stubborn minority of pupils, estimated at 8,000 in just 4 per cent of secondary schools, remain determined to jeopardise their education."
She announced that the Government was targeting 146 schools - mainly in the inner cities - with the worst truancy records, for an intensive anti- truancy drive.Reuse content