Employers should have more of a say in the education and training provided by universities and colleges, education secretary Estelle Morris said this week.
Their influence could help strengthen vocational routes through further and higher education and encourage more working-class people into degrees, she told an employers' skills summit in London on October 16.
Industries will be expected to make their voices heard through a network of Sector Skills Councils, created to replace National Training Organisations.
Ms Morris said she hoped the SSCs, backed by a central Sector Skills Development Agency and each with £1 million a year in government funding, would help bring about a culture change among employers and in institutions to open up more education and training opportunities.
They could support and help shape vocational training from GCSE level through to foundation degrees and invest in training to bring more employees back to college, university, or learning in the workplace, she said.
Ms Morris told the summit and NTO annual conference that she was shocked to find that, despite expansion, people from lower social classes still only made up 17 per cent of higher education students.
Ms Morris told reporters she was "deadly serious" about widening participation in further and higher education and achieving the government's higher education expansion targets. But this would not be possible without a greater input from employers through the SSCs.
"I see them as the voice of industry: analysing the need for skills, commenting on whether present provision meets that need, and commenting on the delivery of courses," she said.
The first few "trailblazer" SSCs are expected to be set up in the next few weeks, followed by a Sector Skills Development Agency, which will act as a quality watchdog and coordinating force.
Garry Hawkes, chairman of the NTO National Council, described the changes as "positive", but criticised the government's efforts to create a distinct vocational route from school through to university. He said there was a danger that by creating foundation degrees the government was throwing HNDs, much valued by many employers, "out with the bath water".