Ministers are urging universities to build closer links with the Learning and Skills Council to help the government realise its higher education expansion targets.
Margaret Hodge, lifelong learning and higher education minister, said close collaboration and sound working relationships between universities and further education colleges, with help from the LSC, were essential to widening participation in higher education.
Ms Hodge, who spoke at a Universities UK conference on regionalism last week, said: "The achievement of national higher education targets for participation and achievement, as well as the need for people with higher-level skills, depends in the first instance on the LSC. Sufficient numbers of young people need to be qualified to level three (equivalent to two A levels) to enable higher-level needs to be met."
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said it was in the interest of higher education institutions to build links with local communities through LSCs in order to secure future university entrants.
By 2010, the government wants half of people under 30 to have undergone higher education in some form. At present, about 44 per cent of people under 30 have benefited from some form of higher education.
An additional 6 per cent would mean hundreds of thousands more students.
But many universities are failing to meet their current student number quotas. This quota is based on the target, set in 1998, of an extra 100,000 people in higher education by 2002.
The government's drive for closer links sparked renewed attacks from politicians who had called for formal links between higher education and the LSC to be written into the Learning and Skills Bill, which set up the LSC and its 47 sub-regional councils.
Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "You cannot simply grow level three and four provision in a piecemeal way.
"There has to be an integrated facility and, while we accept research funding should remain outside, the whole bread-and-butter teaching area has to be under one funding council."
UUK is backing the government's call for a greater regional role for universities. Its report, The Regional Mission , highlights the benefits for universities in terms of widening participation and research opportunities.
The report, published last week, promotes the sharing of good practice, but acknowledges that regional engagement may be seen as a distraction or minor activity for some leading research institutions.
It argues that these institutions can benefit, however, from appropriate regional strategies that underpin high-quality research.
Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University and president elect of UUK, said: "At least 15 higher education institutions receive funding from the LSC and more recruit many of their students from further education colleges.
"So many of us have been calling for some time for closer collaboration between the LSC, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other bodies, for example in the field of quality audit and inspection."
Chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council David Melville, who is becomes vice-chancellor of the University of Kent in September, spoke in favour of closer collaboration at a ceremony - also attended by Ms Hodge - to mark the launch of a project that could lead to the development of a joint campus with Greenwich University and Mid-Kent College.
Professor Melville said: "The future in terms of access... is through closer working between all institutions."