Universities must make students without A levels their key recruitment target if they are to meet the government's expansion goal, vice-chancellors will be told at their annual residential meeting in Southampton next week.
As universities are already absorbing most of the pool of suitably qualified 18-year-old A-level students, they will have to look elsewhere to fill the growing number of places available.
A paper on the future shape of the sector from Sir David Watson, director of Brighton University and chair of Universities UK's longer-term strategy group, will warn that social inclusion is the sector's "final frontier".
"This is a much more profound problem than that of recruiting highly qualified students from poorer areas," he will say. "The sector needs to reach students with non-traditional qualifications in order to achieve the government's participation target."
Sir David will draw on research from Brian Ramsden, outgoing chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Professor Ramsden's report for UUK, Patterns of Higher Education , says that in 2000 almost 90 per cent of university applicants under the age of 20 and with two or more A-level passes were accepted on higher education courses.
The sector had 202,000 home applicants under 21 with two or more A levels. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the total number of applicants accepted by universities in 2000 was 339,747. These included overseas applicants, who account for 12 per cent of the student body.
It is difficult to calculate the additional numbers of university places required to meet the government's expansion targets because ministers have failed to clarify their pledge that 50 per cent of the 18 to 30-year-old population will have experienced some form of higher education by 2010. The current participation rate is 30 per cent of the 18-year-old population.
Officials at the Higher Education Funding Council for England are grappling with the figures to produce a report on student supply and demand to be published in the autumn.
"One thing is clear," said a Hefce official. "At the moment, anyone with A levels who wants a university place will get one. There is no ready supply of qualified A-level entrants to fill any additional places, so we need to look elsewhere."
UUK policy director Tony Bruce said that it was crucial to encourage students from all social backgrounds to stay at school to ensure a higher number of well-qualified candidates, but until that happens, meeting the government's targets will depend on recruiting more talent among those with non-traditional qualifications.
Professor Ramsden's report says that universities accept a median of 33 per cent of students without the traditional two A levels or Scottish highers, but this varies dramatically among institutions, from 1 per cent to as many as 70 per cent.
Participation rates in higher education by social class range from 72 per cent for children from professional classes to 13 per cent of children of unskilled workers.
Sir David will warn: "The participation of these groups has grown, but has not improved proportionately with the growth of the sector as a whole.
"The sector still reinforces social polarisation. Supply has met demand for the middle classes and those who are well qualified, but only a small impression has been made on social groups IIIm (skilled manual), IV (partly skilled) and V (unskilled). The 14-19 age group is key to achieving this equity of access. The sector needs to think about how to link more organically with schools and further education to encourage staying on and to provide progression routes."