The Government's flagship outreach initiative to raise the educational aspirations of the young is under threat after failing to attract funding.
Aimhigher - a nationwide programme in which universities and colleges partner schools to raise students' aspirations and attainment - could have its funds slashed by more than a third. Its national partnership board foresees funding falling from £112 million this year to £72 million in 2007-08.
Aimhigher is funded jointly by the Department for Education and Skills, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Learning and Skills Council. But this week the LSC hinted it could not afford to continue to pay its share. There is also a question mark over the DFES's commitment to the programme.
Caroline Neville, director of learning at the LSC, said after a council meeting on Wednesday: "The LSC has not yet received formal notification from the Department for Education and Skills of the resource available for funding the Aimhigher programme.
"Following confirmation of funding arrangements for 2005-06, the LSC is in the process of reviewing its budget areas. As we have stated, our focus remains firmly on fulfilling our priority to push every penny possible into mainstream front-line delivery, which may necessitate reductions in other budgets. We are not in a position to issue a complete set of budgets covering all areas at present."
Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Essex University, said: "This funding is critical to ensure that widening access work is embedded within our institutions, which in turn will benefit the community by encouraging many people without a family history of higher education to apply to university.
"We look to Government to continue funding this initiative beyond 2006."
Geoff Layer, director of Action on Access and professor of lifelong learning at Bradford University, said: "The key factor in widening participation to higher education, to establish a more socially inclusive society, is to broaden the range of those going to universities and colleges.
"Given the inherent barriers to participation that have existed for generations, it is crucial that outreach strategies such as Aimhigher partnerships are well resourced.
"These partnerships have developed and deliver the crucial activities that raise aspirations, raise attainment levels and facilitate progression for those who traditionally do not participate in higher education."