Universities are practising a form of social engineering aimed at "perpetuating largely white middle-class privilege", it was argued at a Times Higher Education debate last week.
According to Harinder Bahra, professor of management and diversity at Leeds Metropolitan University: "The expansion (of higher education) has increased participation but not widened participation."
Institutions replicate inequalities through admissions policies and organisational culture, Professor Bahra said at the debate, part of the Equality Challenge Unit conference "Evidence for Equality".
"How many black staff are found in senior positions as role models or work in admissions - apart from the customary black outreach worker, funded from the widening participation budget?" he asked.
Professor Bahra cited the "transformational example" of India, which sets quotas at universities for lower-caste applicants, but he noted that such a policy was unlikely to be implemented in the UK. After the event, he said that he thought a "limited" version of the Indian programme should be introduced here.
Aneez Esmail, professor of general practice at the University of Manchester, noted that "affirmative action" had helped produce America's first black president although such initiatives had received mixed reactions in the US. In some states, he said, laws had been passed preventing affirmative action.
"People are worried about a backlash, but if we do nothing, nothing will change," Professor Esmail said. Institutions such as Manchester, which has put considerable effort into widening participation, was "still not meeting the very low targets set by the state", he continued.
Professor Esmail referred to the suggestion by Chris Patten, chancellor of the University of Oxford, that universities were being used as "social security offices". "What he is saying is that he doesn't want anything to change," Professor Esmail said. "That is not acceptable."
In response to a question on whether efforts to increase ethnic-minority participation might overlook the effects of class and vice versa, Professor Esmail noted that Manchester's widening participation programmes targeted applicants from low-income families and poorer schools. "Eighty per cent are from ethnic minorities," he revealed. "There is a relationship between race and class - concentrating on ethnic minorities does not exclude class."
Pamela Garlick, senior lecturer in medical education at King's College London, told of a lack of white working-class boys in the Extended Medical Degree Programme. So far, of 300 students, only two have been white, working class and male.
"Deferred gratification is not in their mentality," Dr Garlick suggested, noting that parents of black African students appeared to be more supportive of the idea of their children becoming doctors.
MAKE LOWER OFFER FOR APPLICANTS FROM BAD SCHOOLS
An access scheme that lowers university entry requirements for students from poorly performing schools could soon be rolled out across universities nationwide, according to its creator.
Kenton Lewis, head of widening participation and student recruitment at St George's, University of London, said details of the Extended Medical Degree Programme had already been passed to other medical and dental schools. "We are going to investigate how we can use it in our other courses," he added.
Under the scheme, the standard "straight As" A-level entry requirement is dropped to two Bs and a C if a student's results are 60 per cent better than the school's average.
"So someone who performs quite well at a very bad school is seen as an equal to someone who performs very well at a very high-performing school. Our stance is that treating unequal people equally is as wrong as treating equal people unequally."
Speaking in advance of a lecture given to the Association of University Administrators conference this week, Mr Lewis said there was "absolutely no difference" in the performance of these students once they were in higher education.