Tony Blair's third-way policies could give Europe a greater opportunity to widen participation in higher education, delegates to the European Access Network conference in Prague heard this week.
At present, the Bologna Declaration, which seeks to establish a single European higher education area, does not place a strong emphasis on the importance of widening participation.
Graeme Atherton, associate dean for widening participation at Liverpool Hope University College, told the EAN: "The third way in Europe and the Bologna Declaration may represent either an opportunity for new policies and initiatives or a threat because the declaration does not sufficiently prioritise access."
Dr Atherton analysed the various initiatives to promote higher education to non-traditional students introduced since Labour came to political power in 1997. He then compared them with Mr Blair's writings on the third way.
He said that the UK's widening access drive would have been impossible without Mr Blair's first-term adherence to the third-way political philosophy, devised by Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics.
He said: "There is a relationship between the third way and widening participation at a conceptual and practical level in the UK. For example, education action zones, the Excellence Challenge and Liverpool Hope's NextStep initiatives are third-way policies.
Delegates to the EAN conference were told that widening participation required better harmonisation of student grants across Europe, especially as more countries, including many former communist states, were about to join the European Union.
Per Nyborg, president of the Council of Europe's steering committee for higher education and research, told the conference that it was a public responsibility for countries seeking to join the EU to demonstrate fair financial packages for students, particularly for those from underrepresented groups.
Speaking to delegates at the conference, Mr Nyborg said: "All countries should strive to set up student-support systems. That is more important than whether or not tuition is free because it allows students to borrow money to pay for their tuition when they have a job.
"Access for underrepresented groups should have priority, and financial support should be given to those from low-income groups with scholarships for students with high academic grades."
Several of the countries seeking membership of the EU are expected to sign up to the Bologna agreement at a meeting of education ministers in Berlin in September.