By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff
The target for half of young people to enter university could be achieved much sooner than expected - for women.
Girls are already close to achieving the university targets set for 2010
The drive for more university places aims to have 50% of youngsters going to university by the end of the decade.
But a gender breakdown of university admissions shows that for women this barrier is already approaching.
The most recent university entry rate is 43% of all young people - but projected figures for girls show them heading fast towards 50%.
According to the most recent figures - which are already two years out of date - girls are only a few percentage points off the target - and as girls continue to outperform boys, this year's intake seems set to be in touching distance of the symbolic 50% mark.
And it seems that it is underachieving boys who are holding back the early attainment of the government's ambitions for a workforce where most adults were graduates.
Tuition fees are linked to the efforts to increase university places
"If male participation rates caught up with females, the target would almost be achieved," said Libby Aston at the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The targets for participation in higher education are central to the plans for increasing student tuition fees, which will be one of the most controversial proposals to be discussed at the Labour Party annual conference this week.
There are also opponents of the expansion plans who argue that there is no need for more than half the population to go to university - and that instead there should be greater emphasis on vocational training.
But these arguments could already be rendered irrelevant for female students - if the figures show that they are already approaching the 50% target.
The most recent official figures for a gender breakdown are from 2001 - and these showed that behind the 43% overall average there is a sharp divide between the achievements of female and male students.
These figures from the Department for Education and Skills showed that 46.7% of girls were entering higher education, compared to only 40.4% of boys.
Since then, the overall numbers entering university have increased year on year. And since there is a clear trend for more female than male students to enter university - it pushes closer towards the point where a majority of women are going to university.
This gender gap is shown in intake figures for 2001 from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which show that girls had a 9% lead over boys.
The Department for Education and Skills says that it cannot confirm such figures, but a spokesperson says that on "current trends it is fair to assume that women will reach the 50% barrier before men - although we cannot say realistically when that will happen".
How close last year's entry came to the 50% target will be published next spring - and the figures for 2003-2004 will be available the year after that.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England also say that there are not any more up to date confirmed figures on male and female university entry.
But Libby Aston also cautions that a bulge in the size of the population in this age group means that that an increase in numbers entering university will not necessarily convert into a rise in the proportion in higher education.
And higher education statistics gatherers point to the many ways in which university participation can be calculated and the difficulties in making estimates about what has become a politically-charged target.
Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, published earlier this month, showed that girls were outperforming boys in education systems across the developed world.
The international comparison of education systems also showed that there were many countries where considerably more than 50% of young people entered university.
In New Zealand, the participation rate for university is 76%, in Australia is 65% in Finland it is 72%, in Hungary it is 56% and in the Netherlands it is 54%. Outside the OECD, Argentina has a higher education entry rate of 59% and the Philippines has 52%.