Colleges and universities are the biggest barrier to wider access, because they fail to put the learner at the heart of their work.
This is the view of two experts from the Open University in Scotland, speaking at last week's European Access Network conference in Glasgow.
Judith George and Ewan Gillon said their findings showed enormous differences between the approaches and cultures of community education, further education and higher education. This alienated potential tertiary entrants from non-traditional backgrounds, who were unsure of what was involved in taking a course and what was expected of them, they said.
Professor George, assistant director of the OU in Scotland, said entrants from middle-class backgrounds with academic potential were "quickly and easily" able to fit into academia.
"By contrast, learners from severely disadvantaged social backgrounds are distanced from the education world, its values and habits, aims and aspirations. Even the practicalities of education, time management, and money to buy books, are beyond their means and they do not see education as relevant for themselves or their children," she said.
Dr Gillon, the Scottish OU's widening participation coordinator, said the solution was to put the learner at the heart of the education system. "To widen participation, higher and further education must become student-centred in the sense that community education is," he said.
Institutions must explain what was on offer and what was expected of students, he said.
The findings come from work with non-traditional adult learners in Dumfries and Galloway in an innovative OU programme called The Open Road .
It is a joint venture between community and further and higher education that aims to develop accessible and clearly marked pathways through education.