Broadening participation in higher education is not primarily a university or even a sixth-form-level problem, but must be tackled before children reach the age of 16.
That was the view put forth by Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics and one of the architects of student tuition fees in the UK. He told an audience of academics, politicians and policymakers that the key to improving university access could be summed up by the maxim: "It's attainment, stupid."
Speaking last week at a Times Higher Education-Higher Education Policy Institute seminar on the marketisation of the university sector, Professor Barr said: "Sociologists often say that fees harm access: they don't, it's all gone wrong a lot earlier, and if we try to fix access by worrying just about fees then we are putting our passion and our resources in the wrong place."
He said: "The things you need to do to widen participation need to happen earlier than age 18.
"What (determines) widening participation? If all else fails, look at the evidence. Who gets the best GCSE results? Answer: the children of professionals. Who stays on after 16? Answer: those who get the best GCSE results. That is where access fails, when people get poor GCSE marks and leave school.
"Who goes to university? Answer: those with the best A-level results - get good A levels and you've cracked it. So if you're serious about widening participation - and I'm deeply serious about it - then it should be thought of much more as a 0-18 problem than an 18-plus problem."
He added: "As a researcher in child development tragically put it ... by the age of 18, all the damage is done."
Although Professor Barr was clear that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds needed continuity of financial assistance throughout education, he also reiterated the case for fees.
The idea that "higher education is a basic right, therefore it should be free" was a non sequitur, he insisted. "Food is a basic right, but no one's arguing that it should be free."
Noting that after top-up tuition fees were introduced in 2006, the number of applications to study at university continued to grow while access rates remained the same, Professor Barr said it was crucial that loans covered students' fees and living costs so that higher education was "free to students, but not free to graduates".
He said that one alternative funding model, paying for higher education solely though taxation, would fail to achieve any of the sector's main objectives and would unfairly burden some. "If you rely too much on taxpayer finance, then the taxes paid by the truck driver pay for the education of the Old Etonian."
"Going back to a system with more central planning and reliance on the taxpayer will harm quality and, counter-intuitively, work against widening participation," he said.