Ministers set to miss target on students

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The Government is set to miss its much vaunted target for 50 per cent of youngsters to go to university by 2010, the university funding council has warned.

The warning follows a sudden drop in university applications this year as far more school leavers than expected were put off university by top-up fees, which will be up to £3,000 a year from this autumn.

Up to 26,000 extra full-time undergraduate places will be created for the 2006-07 academic year, but this is half the number needed to put universities on track to meet the target, the Higher Education Funding Council for England said.

The funding council said the Government had also over-estimated its success at recruiting young people into higher education.

The proportion of young people in higher education is 43 per cent, up from 42.5 per cent last year. But earlier figures estimated last year's participation at 44 per cent, meaning rapid expansion is needed at the end of the decade if ministers are to meet their target of a 50 per cent rate by 2010.

Figures released by the University and College Admissions Service last month revealed a 3.4 per cent drop in applications - the first drop for six years.