Tony Blair has attacked the "cosy elitism" of those who oppose the target of half of young people going into higher education.
The prime minister, speaking at the Abraham Moss High School in Manchester, also hit out at those who denigrate vocational qualifications.
He said: "There are some traditionalists who believe that more means worse - that only a small minority have the brains to go on to university. They oppose vocational GCSEs and A levels on the grounds that they will supposedly 'dumb down' the curriculum. It is a cosy elitism that has bedevilled and weakened our education system for more than a century."
Mr Blair outlined government plans for secondary education to raise the standards, achievement and aspirations of young people.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "UUK welcomes the prime minister's recognition of the importance of education for individuals and for Britain's future.
"We look forward to the outcome of the spending review and hope the government will back up this restated commitment to education with sufficient funding for higher education. An investment of £9.94 billion is needed across six key areas to ensure the success of higher education in the future."