More funding council intervention may be needed if non-traditional students, such as those from poorer backgrounds, are not to be squeezed out of higher education, according to a new report.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England's advisory group on access and participation has suggested that the council use cash incentives to promote access for non-traditional students.
The report, out this week, says that such a policy would be a "radical departure". But it may be necessary given the worry of many universities' - often the former polytechnics - that while they support access for non-traditional learners they receive no specific funding for these initiatives, which they say can be expensive.
The report says: "In addressing such developments, and the matter of mission dilution, the council could explicitly recognise access-orientated mission by appropriately weighted formula funding or separate funding incentives."
It says that the funding council may also wish to consider a regional dimension to funding policy to widen access for a growing number of students, particularly part-timers and mature students, who wish to study locally.
The report comes amid uncertainty over limits on student growth on the one hand and encouraging lifelong learning on the other.
It says that although progress has been made to widen access through funding council policies, more than 60 per cent of undergraduates are still from the professional, managerial and associated social groups - which make up just 37 per cent of economically active people - despite an 80 per cent increase in total student numbers between 1983/84 and 1993/94.
It says: "The differences are so marked as to suggest substantial under-representation of the skilled non-manual, skilled manual and partly unskilled social classes."
The report says that the rise in student hardship and indebtedness may produce a significant barrier to participation for non-traditional students. The advisory group was set up in 1992 and this report is an update. It stresses that, while many of the funding issues are the subject of review by Sir Ron Dearing, the funding council should lose no time in considering issues of access.