Martin Hall, who took over at the University of Salford in 2009 after living in South Africa for 35 years, said initiatives to promote equality at the University of Cape Town under apartheid could be successfully applied to UK institutions seeking to attract more students from deprived backgrounds.
Professor Hall, who was deputy vice-chancellor of Cape Town, likens the life chances of children from low-income households in Britain to impoverished young South Africans, saying both are locked in poverty traps that limit their ability to access higher education.
"Coming back to the UK, it seemed very familiar to things I dealt with in South Africa," he told Times Higher Education.
"If you see it through a social-class lens, rather than a race perspective, you have the same structural problems. Along with the US, Britain has the sharpest inequality of any Western country, and you have a pathology that is working through to access to higher education.
"In the days when there was money in the system, these inequalities were masked. But now that we are going into a period of austerity, they are beginning to look starker."
Professor Hall argued that UK universities could copy schemes such as the Academic Support Programme, introduced at Cape Town in 1980 to offer extra support to poor black students. Other initiatives included the greater use of contextual data during selection.
"I'm trying to point to things that could be applied to British universities," he said.
"In South Africa we had to deal with these issues because they were so in-your-face. When you have people with ability coming out of townships with literally nothing, you cannot just ignore them.
"It's not so immediately obvious here...[but] you have the same extreme form of inequality caused by household income, which creates patterns of exclusion that we need to grasp. No society can cope with these inequalities. Britain is sitting on a time bomb when it comes to inequality."
Professor Hall sets out these arguments in a new paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education titled Inequality in Higher Education: Marketplace or Social Justice?
However, Sir Peter Scott, director of the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, said that the results of the South African changes had been "disappointing" and that the UK lacked the "consensus for change" that defined post-apartheid society.
"Sadly there is not enough in the South African experience to encourage an old country like England, morally complacent and weary of ambition, to follow a similar path and espouse radical interventionism," he said.
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