Bradford University is launching a scheme next month to get children as young as eight involved in higher education.
Geoff Layer, dean of the school of lifelong education, said: "In an inner city like this where we have one of the lowest rates of participation, you need to start building aspirations very much earlier."
To engage eight-year-olds you have to get inside their psyche, Professor Layer said, and to appreciate that their role models are likely to be television characters. "If children are watching programmes about firefighting then we can talk about what difference it would make if a firefighter was a graduate. That is how we get them interested and excited."
The Bradford Bulls rugby league team is helping with the scheme, which will involve local primary schools in building routes to further and higher education.
Bernard Dady, director of the South Bradford education action zone, said the key was to reach families who did not believe higher education was for them.
"We want to make the university more familiar and less threatening and to raise aspirations and achievement," he said.
The University of Lincoln is also committed to planting seeds early, according to access coordinator John Knowles. He said that universities are still failing to attract enough students from working-class backgrounds.
"The vast majority of students going into higher education don't decide to go - they just go as a matter of course," he said. "My gut reaction is that the huge expansion of higher education has served to recruit large numbers of poorly qualified middle-class students rather than under-qualified working-class students."
Children are shown around the university, then involved in carefully planned activities designed to be fun. The hope is that a positive experience at an early age will result in more pupils from underprivileged backgrounds considering higher education as an option.
"The feedback from the participating schools is that the kids get a tremendous fillip out of their visits," said Mr Knowles. "They're intensely motivating - they tell these kids that they can aspire to higher education, that they can cope with it."
Access visits for eight-year-olds feature exercises such as spot the lecturer and a comparison of the vice-chancellor's suite with their own headteacher's office.
At Teesside University, the Meteor programme has started working closely with primary schools. Research carried out there showed that only per cent of Middlesbrough's young people obtain five GCSE grades A to C compared with a national average of 46 per cent and that just 5 per cent of 18-year-olds go on to higher education.
Meteor starts with year-six pupils - aged ten and 11 - since most in this age group are still enthusiastic about their schooling. As children get older, disillusionment and behaviour problems often surface, said the spokesman, so it was important that Meteor should not be a one-off, but keep in contact with pupils into their teens.