US-style community-orientated learning rather than reform of university admission policies is the key to broadening access to higher education, the Shadow Minister for Vocational Education told the Conservative Party conference this week.
John Hayes told a fringe meeting - "Universities: Who is responsible for widening participation?", sponsored by the University of Oxford - that "changing the way we learn, who learns and where" was central to Conservative policy.
"Going away to university is fine if you have means and opportunity," he told a delegate who suggested that learning from home would mean missing out on many of the benefits of a university education.
"But the door must not be closed for whom that is not an option - if you are a mature learner, the chances are you not going to be able to disappear for three years."
A focus on widening access through part-time, modular and distance learning, and US-style "credit accumulation", would free universities from "a myopic obsession on admissions", which he said was a product of the prejudice of "people currently in Government - not least Gordon Brown".
Mr Brown famously castigated Oxford in 2000 for refusing a place to Laura Spence, a comprehensive school student who was predicted to achieve five grade As at A level.
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, pointed to initiatives such as the University of Warwick's "2+2" degree, under which students take the first two years of a four-year degree in a further education college, as evidence that "elite" universities are already moving in the direction proposed by Mr Hayes.
However, she said that in the US, which operates a modular credit system, dropout rates were higher and participation in higher education lower than in the UK.
Mr Hayes argued that an increased dropout rate was an inevitable consequence of widening access beyond the "shrinking pool of the middle class".
"The US system is not perfect - the disadvantaged are often focused in particular geographical areas in the US - but what is certainly true is that it is better at flexible community-orientated learning."
Speaking to Times Higher Education after the meeting, Mr Hayes said that although universities should consider school and social background when gauging the potential of individual applicants, assessment based on categories of people - however narrowly defined - were "incompatible with a system based on merit and should be strongly resisted".
Several universities currently take into account "average school achievement" when selecting candidates, lowering entry requirements for students from poorly performing schools.
Asked whether a Conservative government would scrap the Office for Fair Access (Offa), Mr Hayes said no decision had yet been made. However, he commented that "interfering with admissions is not central to the Conservative agenda".