Selective universities are being urged to review their spending on bursaries, scholarships and outreach "as a matter of urgency", as new research shows that access to the country's elite institutions has stalled.
Although recent data show an improvement in the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education as a whole, a study examining only the most selective universities, published this week by the Office for Fair Access, found that there had been no improvement since the mid-2000s.
According to the analysis, prepared to inform Sir Martin Harris' report to the government on access to elite institutions, the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people are still seven times more likely to attend an elite university than the most disadvantaged 40 per cent. At some institutions, privileged students are 15 times more likely to attend.
But Sir Martin's report, What More Can Be Done to Widen Access to Highly Selective Universities?, said elite universities had made "considerable efforts" to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds and without this, progress might have been reversed.
The slower increase in student numbers at these universities and the faster rate of increase in A-level A grades at private schools may help explain the lack of progress, it suggests.
Sir Martin says evaluation and evidence of the success of widening participation initiatives is an area of weakness that needs to be improved. However, he adds that some universities do have "convincing evidence" about the positive effect of their programmes.
The report says summer schools have proved particularly effective, and stresses that in a time of tight finances, universities need to carefully target outreach spending.
"Selective universities should, as a matter of urgency, review the pattern of their expenditure on bursaries, scholarships and additional outreach, to improve the way they target students and ensure money is spent on effective initiatives," the report continues.
Sir Martin points out that, if the cap on tuition fees is raised, investment in outreach could be considerably increased.
But his key message is that selective universities, working with schools and colleges, must take "substantial further steps" to identify and support talented students from poor families as early as possible, and no later than Year 9 - ahead of GCSE choices.
Sir Martin argues in favour of the use of contextual data in university admissions, and also calls for selective universities to do more to counter the false belief among some students that it is more expensive to go to an elite university.
His other recommendations include making schools publish data on the destination of pupils at 18, and universities on their record with widening participation targets.
The report also reveals that 13 universities working together on a scheme designed to help talented but poor students progress to research-intensive universities have decided not to give participants a guaranteed interview for fear that this might be seen as an additional hurdle. It adds that preliminary research exploring the possibility of a national university entrance test suggests that the idea has only "limited potential".