Funding chiefs must shift more money into the drive to attract students from poor backgrounds into higher education, the Government has said.
Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education, urges the initiative in the annual grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England issued this week.
Ms Kelly confirms that in 2006-07 the Government will stand by a commitment to increase funding for teaching by 5 per cent, and research and capital projects by 8 per cent. She asks Hefce to "explore options for additional support for widening participation". She stresses that it must "go further still" to support the extra costs incurred by institutions in trying to support students from the lowest socioeconomic groups.
Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, told The Times Higher that the Government wanted universities to focus more on ensuring that underprivileged students did not drop out.
He said: "In fact, dropout rates have gone down. But we need to make sure institutions have enough resources to build up the regular contact you need to support a student in that situation."
But Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, said: "This is prioritising social policy over educational excellence."
He added: "There is no vision here about world-class universities and the advancement of education, I find that worrying."
Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, welcomed the additional support.
But he criticised the preoccupation with students completing their degree courses.
He said: "We have a very low so-called dropout rate, but that means some universities are not prepared to take students who have a risk of not completing their course in three or four years. Doing two years of a course can have real benefits, and many will come back to higher education later."