Sean Farren, Northern Ireland's minister for higher and further education, plans to investigate whether the province needs a quota system to ensure access by disadvantaged groups.
Northern Ireland has long suffered a shortage of higher education places. This has forced up university entry requirements, and led to the phenomenon of "reluctant leavers", students who are obliged to cross to the mainland for courses.
Dr Farren has negotiated an extra 5,400 local higher education places by 2005. But he is concerned that while 25 per cent of the population are in lower socioeconomic groups, only 11 per cent of students come from these groups.
"It does seem there is a considerable gap to be closed," he said. Low-income students preferred to study closer to home, Dr Farren said, and widening access is therefore likely to put additional pressure on local places.
"If we can achieve targets without imposing quotas, the need for quotas doesn't arise. But if not, then we may need to look at this in a more direct way," he said.
Dr Farren praised Queen's University, Belfast, and Ulster University for their work with schools in disadvantaged areas. But he said these schemes were in their infancy and had not yet produced a significant increase in applicants.
Peter O'Neill, manager of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland, said: "We would be interested in exploring with the minister the potential for quotas and other more rigorous ways of ensuring equality of opportunity in tertiary education. The current consultation on student support and the department's own policy frameworks afford an opportunity to look at how we can effect wider participation."