A fierce debate about the mechanics of widening participation began on Wednesday when a change of direction was signalled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, writes Alison Utley.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at Hefce, said the way to get more students into higher education was not to devise more access courses but to raise attainment in schools.
"Some of the beliefs about what the funding council and universities can do on widening participation have been a little naive," Mr Bekhradnia told delegates at Staffordshire University's widening participation and lifelong learning conference.
"Universities have to be discerning when deciding who to admit. They have to ensure that their students have a reasonable chance of success. We now know there is a linear relationship between previous achievement and success at university, and that those least likely to succeed come through the access route. Our most profitable engagement therefore is going to be with the 12 to 14 age group now."
But Maggie Woodrow, head of the European Access Initiative, said Hefce was dodging the issue. "It doesn't matter how much you focus on schools, because even if you raise aspirations, students still cannot afford to come into higher education," she said. "Focusing on gifted pupils means you are writing off the rest and not recognising that widening participation is about opportunity, motivation and money."