Higher education is still vulnerable to claims of self-perpetuating privilege and elitism, Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, has warned.
Lady Warwick, giving Strathclyde University's Alexander Stone lecture in rhetoric, said universities have been enormously successful in expanding access. But they have been less successful in attracting and keeping entrants from deprived backgrounds.
"The major part of expansion has been in young women. We have ensured that the daughters of the middle classes, and not just the sons of the middle classes, benefit from higher education," Lady Warwick said.
Although 30 per cent of young people lived in low-participation areas, only 12 per cent of them were university entrants, Lady Warwick said.
Higher education competes with the "University of Life", which offers the prospect of a full-time wage, not benefits deferred, she said. Universities were doing much to overcome the hurdles, but widening participation was not up to them alone. Government support was needed to encourage cooperation between universities, schools and colleges.
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