Heads of elite institutions need to pay more attention to widening participation if the government's targets are to be met, higher education minister Margaret Hodge said this week.
But Ms Hodge revealed that any push to widen participation would be tempered by the desire to retain institutional diversity. She told The THES :"I think institutions should focus on what they are best at. Some will do more work on enabling access and others more on, perhaps, research."
Ms Hodge said there was still a significant "selling job" to be done to convince vice-chancellors that widening participation "is not political correctness gone mad but a shift that is at the heart of what the Labour government is about".
Speaking at a conference in Leeds, the minister said that Britain had always done well by its top achievers but there was a long tail of under-achievers who were losing out. "By tackling this we are not dumbing down but valuing diversity in higher education while working hard to enhance standards."
Ms Hodge said raising attainment in schools was the key to reaching the 50 per cent higher education participation target by 2010. But universities also needed to change in order to offer more flexible programmes to new kinds of students, particularly those opting to study part-time or in the workplace. And stronger links with further education colleges were also a vital element, she said.
The education department launched its latest advertising campaign, Aim Higher, yesterday, targeted at 13 to 18-year-olds. Celebrities including Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard, model Naomi Campbell, Popstars ' "Nasty Nigel" Lithgoe and broadcaster Zo Ball will appear in radio, newspaper and magazine adverts encouraging young people to go to university.
Richard Taylor, professor of continuing education at Leeds University, said that unless some Russell Group institutions engaged more fully with widening participation, a two-tier sector would emerge.
"We are fortunate in Leeds to have the full support of our vice-chancellor, but elsewhere some elite institutions are merely cherry-picking the brightest youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, which does not in any way fulfil the widening participation agenda," he said.
"Instead of creaming off the top, universities need to revisit their curricula. They need to look at better use of technology while developing more flexible delivery."