Hefce report questions value of costly initiatives and argues for open entry to university, writes Claire Sanders.
Universities would need to scrap entry requirements to make any real headway in admitting students from a broader range of backgrounds, according to a highly controversial report commissioned by funding chiefs.
The review of widening access raises doubts about whether policies to reduce inequality through education can ever work and will fuel the debate over why the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education has stalled despite billions of pounds being ploughed into the area.
A review team led by Stephen Gorard of York University argues that in the near future discrimination based on school qualification could seem as "unnatural as discrimination by sex, class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and age do now". Instead, a "threshold level" could be introduced, equivalent to perhaps two A levels, and places to specific institutions could be allocated according to students' location, disciplinary specialisation or randomly.
Professor Gorard, who led the team from York, the Higher Education Academy and the Institute for Access Studies, said: "As research indicates that qualifications are largely a proxy for class and income, then why use them as a means of rationing higher education? The Open University has operated an open-access scheme for years that has clearly not damaged standards."
The report, published online by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says access may be improved by raising attainment levels in schools and by making it easier for those with vocational qualifications to go to university. But it suggests that education may have limited impact in helping those from poor backgrounds because academic achievement is so influenced by family background and early experiences. "The solution to educational inequality... may not be found in education," it says.
The report, which criticises research into widening participation, also argues that some interventions benefit more advantaged students, increasing inequality.
Review of Widening Participation Research: Addressing the Barriers to Participation in Higher Education was originally intended to provide a review of evidence about widening participation so the council could target funding more effectively.
Amid evidence that participation among less-privileged students is stalling, Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, asked Hefce to audit initiatives. A final report is due mid-October.
Mr Rammell said: "It is too early to say if widening participation has stalled. There is scope to get more people with vocational qualifications into university."
A funding council spokesperson described the report as a valuable "resource". He added: "It is certainly true that universities cannot solve the problem of widening participation on their own, but equally you cannot solve the problem without them."
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: "We strongly believe there is a role for universities to play in widening participation."