THE number of young people from working class backgrounds going to college has dropped in recent years, new figures reveal.
The unexpected decline comes at a time of massive expansion in higher education.
A new report shows that college prospects for children of non-manual workers -- these include secretaries, bus drivers, bar staff, hairdressers, and lower administrative grades in the public service -- have also failed to improve.
And it confirms that colleges have not met their 2010 target for mature students enrolling.
The details are contained in the mid-term review of the 'National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013', which is published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
The report says that while some progress has been made, the majority of the targets set for 2010 have not been met. Considerable work remains to ensure that students of all backgrounds get the support they need.
It shows that the percentage of 17 to 19-year-olds in the country enrolling in college has increased from 44pc in 2004 to 53pc last year. The total number of first years rose from 34,533 in 2007/08 to 40,059 two years later.
But a detailed breakdown of access data shows that the number of students from semi and unskilled backgrounds fell over that period -- from 10.8pc (3,730 students) to 8pc (3,212).
The percentage of students from non-manual backgrounds has also fallen -- from 10.8pc to 9.6pc over the same period.
The report finds colleges are way behind in terms of targets for students from non-manual backgrounds.
It also shows that while the percentage of mature students has increased from 10.9pc to 13.5pc over the same period, this is still below the 17pc target.
The number of Travellers in first year decreased from 33 to 24 but climbed back to 27 in 2009/10.
The number of students with disabilities rose from 1,389 to 2,386, an increase from 4pc to 6pc.
The report records progress in some areas. But it says that access services and personnel are being reduced in some colleges where access remains "on the margins". It sets out action points to help institutions reach their access targets by 2013.
The Irish Independent has learned that in future colleges face penalties if they underscore on targets but will be rewarded if they meet them.
The only target which has come close to being met is for the number of students with sensory, physical and multiple disabilities enrolling in college.
Meanwhile, the HEA is likely to be beefed up and given more powers following the Hunt strategy. The authority is expected to place much greater emphasis on reaching targets to meet government priorities.