The latest age participation index (API), showing the number of under-21s in full-time HE, indicates that 15.7 per cent of the age-group were at further education colleges in 2003-04 and 31 per cent at universities. With another 2.2 per cent attending HE institutions elsewhere in the UK, the proportion for that year was 48.9 per cent.
This means that, for the past seven years, the total number has been around the 50 per cent mark, and the official target for participation in HE would not have been achieved without colleges.
The figure actually jumped to 51.5 per cent between 2000 and 2002, as FE's contribution rose to nealry 20 per cent at one point.
The index also reveals the growing gap in the numbers of young male and female students entering HE over the past 20 years. In 1983-84, the proportions were almost identical at 19.5 per cent and 18.2 per cent.
Women began to overtake men for the first time in 1989-90 and have stayed ahead ever since. In 2003-04, young female under-21s made up 54.2 per cent of the numbers in HE.