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Tony Blair’s commitment that his Labour government would achieve 50 per cent participation in higher education was made in 1999, although the participation rate did not start rising substantially until the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ended England’s student number controls in 2013.

More recently, however, the target has been heavily criticised, including Rishi Sunak calling it a ‘false dream’ for young school and college leavers when too many degree courses did not lead to decently paid graduate careers.

The target has often been misrepresented. It was not about school leavers but the 18–30-year-old age group, not about going to university but about higher education, and not about degrees but, again, higher education.

These are important distinctions. The UK’s skills shortages are more extensive among the existing workforce than new entrants; higher education is provided by a wider range of organisations than just universities; and there are more higher education qualifications than just degrees. Further education colleges in particular have as yet unrealised potential to help solve the UK’s higher-level skills and productivity challenges given their locations often outside core cities.

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