The push towards local universities with policies to widen access was strengthened this week by government proposals for new league tables.
The government has drawn up indicators to show how each institution performs according to various criteria, including access.
"The access indicators are designed to measure progress in redressing the under-representation of some social groups in higher education," states the first report of the performance indicators steering group, due to be published shortly. "Where the social distribution of students differs significantly from the population from which they are drawn, a movement can be interpreted as 'good' if it moves closer to the distribution of the population."
Asked whether this meant that it was OK for universities in middle-class areas to attract more middle-class students, the chairman of the steering group, Bahram Bekhradnia, said: "Those are your words, not mine. But to the extent that universities draw from a local area - and, increasingly, they do - then that would be an inevitable outcome."
Mr Bekhradnia, who is director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, added that he had already witnessed such an outcome at the University of North London. "I went to the University of North London's degree ceremony recently," he said. "About 80 to 90 per cent of the graduates were of ethnic minority origin. It was amazing and rather wonderful."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "The access indicators are about helping institutions deal with under-representation from different social groups and this is a possible way in which they can gauge their performance against the sector and society as a whole. This will help the government know if the policy of widening access is being met." She also stressed that the government intends to consult on the proposed performance indicators.
The funding councils have said that universities widening access will get more money.
"There will be questions about the recruitment catchment area," said David Young, who represents the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals on the steering group. "Often ethnic traditions mean that students only study locally. Some students will live at home because of financial reasons.
"The catchment area for the University of Cambridge is pretty well the whole world," he added, "whereas some inner-city colleges have strong access-orientated missions and attract local students."
The first report of the performance indicators steering group will be published by HEFCE in the next few weeks and sent to all English and Welsh institutions for consultation. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is working on its own indicators.