University targets in jeopardy after student levels fall

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The Independent Online

The Labour Party's manifesto pledge for half of all young people to go to university by 2010 is in jeopardy after new figures showed the first drop in participation rates since the target was announced by Tony Blair.

The Labour Party's manifesto pledge for half of all young people to go to university by 2010 is in jeopardy after new figures showed the first drop in participation rates since the target was announced by Tony Blair.

The proportion of 17- to 30-year-olds going to university fell by nearly one percentage point last year.

Only 42.5 per cent of this age group were at university in 2003/04 down from 43.4 per cent the previous year, according to figures obtained by the Times Higher Education Supplement.

This unexpected drop will make the 50 per cent target very difficult to reach.

It was due to a fall in the proportion of men going to university which dropped by one percentage point to 38 per cent in 2003/04. Young women were more likely to go to university - 47 per cent - but this represented no change on the previous year.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) uses the figures to measure progress towards the target, which was announced at the 1999 Labour conference. The pledge formed part of Labour's 2001 manifesto and is repeated in this year's manifesto.

While university applications rose by nearly nine per cent last year, a rise in the number of young people in this age group resulted in a fall in the overall proportion going to university.

University leaders also blame lack of funding for the failure to create places. Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK said: "If the next government wants to see a 50 per cent participation rate ..., it will have to provide income streams for universities that are stable and reliable over the long term.

"There has been a chronic erosion in ... funding during a time of rapid expansion of the sector. In fact, spending on higher education in the UK lags behind our competitor countries at 0.8 per cent of GDP, compared to 1 per cent on average in developed countries."

The official figures show the proportion of women going to university is now four percentage points higher than in 1999. However, after a modest rise, the proportion of men going to university has now dropped back to the 2001/02 level. This is despite figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showing that applications for university courses were up by 8.9 per cent this year.

A spokesman for the DfES said a rise in the population of 17- to 30-year-olds meant that although the proportion going to university had fallen "the numbers of people going to university increased by approximately 11,000" last year.

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