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Labour concedes that it won't deliver its 50% target on time

Top civil servant says 'we never thought we would', while Denham strives to shift focus, writes John Gill

Nine years ago Tony Blair took to the stage at the Labour Party's annual conference and set out his bold plan to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education.

Two years after Labour's 1997 election victory, he told delegates that he was a realist who had the "scars of government" to prove it, but his ambition was that of a leader still riding the wave of self-belief that had swept him to power.

Little could he have imagined that almost a decade later the Labour Government would have managed to raise participation among 17 to 30-year-olds by just a fraction of a percentage point - from 39.2 per cent in 2000 to 39.8 per cent last year - and that the political opposition would be scoring points by claiming that, at current rates of progress, the goal will not be achieved for 100 years.

The impression that the target has become something of an albatross around the Government's neck is compounded by recent attempts to explain its continuing relevance.

John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said in a speech to vice-chancellors last week that the 50 per cent figure was "a measure of real, valuable and achievable aims", adding: "It's a long time since the target was first established. It's all too easy to remember the target but to forget what it represents."

However, in a candid speech made just a week earlier, his top civil servant for higher education, Ruth Thompson, appeared to admit that some within Whitehall had never believed the target would be hit by 2010, the deadline set in Labour's 2001 election manifesto.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators in York, she described the target as "infamous".

"I am glad to say that the Government is moving off this target of moving towards 50 per cent" as the focus shifts from the under thirties to the workforce as a whole, she said.

"We're not abandoning it ... and we are willing to explain to people why we will not reach the rate of 50 per cent participation of that age group by 2010, because we never thought we would actually," Dr Thompson said.

The target's return to the spotlight continues its confused progression since Mr Blair announced it in typically rousing style back in 1999, when he said: "In today's world there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you will go ... So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century."

Although it was an ambitious goal, it was hailed as achievable.

Tony Bruce, then the director of policy for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK), said that the target could be achieved "if current momentum is maintained".

However, as politicians and civil servants have wrestled with the challenge, shifting interpretations of what precisely the target means have muddied the waters.

In 2002, ministers were rapped in a report by the influential Public Accounts Committee, which said the target "lacked clarity".

"Definitions have varied over time and (the issue of) what qualifications count is under review," it said.

"The basis of measurement has also changed ... The department should set out in unambiguous terms the target for widening participation, the courses that count and the basis for measurement."

Specific questions were raised about the changing terms used to define the target, which saw "university participation" become "experience of higher education".

Six years later, the Government acknowledges that the deadline will be missed, but that has not stopped Mr Denham from using it as a political battleground.

In a speech at the Higher Education Funding Council for England conference last week, he said: "It has never been more important to make the argument for widening participation and the expansion of higher education.

"It will be one of the big dividing lines at the next election. (Conservative leader) David Cameron has personally rejected the 50 per cent target."

David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Minister, said that the target had been a failure.

"At the current rate of progress, the Government will achieve its target in 2124. David Cameron and I want to see more people go on to university ... but the target itself has not helped progress," he said.

"The target has diverted them. Instead of talking about real-world problems, John Denham ends up talking about statistical gains," said Mr Willetts.

Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrats' universities spokesman, was equally dismissive.

"The Government's target is fatuous when we have some schools in this country sending 100 per cent of their students to universities, and some sending none at all," he said.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

A MEASURE OF SUCCESS

1999: Prime Minister Tony Blair announces a target of 50 per cent of 17 to 30-year-olds participating in higher education. "In today's world there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you will go," he said.

2001: A deadline of 2010 is set to achieve the 50 per cent widening participation target in the Labour Government's election manifesto.

2002: The Public Accounts Committee raises concerns that the higher education target "lacks clarity".

2008: Figures reveal that the participation rate among 17 to 30-year-olds has risen by just 0.6 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2006-07, from 39.2 per cent to 39.8 per cent.

2008: On 1 April, Ruth Thompson, the director-general for higher education, says that the Government will not hit the 2010 deadline, adding that "we never thought we would".

2008: On 8 April, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, says that progress towards achieving 50 per cent participation in higher education among young people is a "measure of real, valuable and achievable aims".

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