The government's rhetoric on widening participation has not been matched by appropriate action, higher education leaders warned this week.
A Universities UK conference on widening participation heard yesterday that while ministers have had a lot to say about opening access for underrepresented groups, their policies reveal they have little understanding of how to achieve it.
Maggie Woodrow, executive director of the European Access Network at the University of Westminster, said that the government had "gone for a talent-spotting model which aims to rescue the talented and gifted few people in lower socioeconomic groups without changing the current system.
"The appropriate solution would be to change the system to one that is truly inclusive so that people from all underrepresented groups are on an equal footing with the better off."
Ms Woodrow said that the abolition of maintenance grants was a significant barrier for students from poorer families.
Leslie Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and chairman of UUK's widening participation strategy group, said a great deal had been achieved by the sector. But he said levels of improvement in the participation of students from lower socioeconomic groups were "not good enough".
The provision of £6 million for universities with poor access records had "got up everybody's nose", he said. The plan would result in high achievers from poorer backgrounds going to elite institutions rather than universities with better access records.
UUK launched its statement on widening participation at the conference, which was attended by higher education minister Margaret Hodge.
- Baroness Warwick, UUK chief executive, is set to tell next week's convention of the European Access Network that collaboration is indispensable to widening participation. This includes collaboration between government and higher education and with industry.