Universities have a mountain to climb to meet the government's 50 per cent participation target according to two new reports exposing damning evidence of the barriers facing the poor.
The National Audit Office reports reveal hurdles and disincentives including performance in schools, university admissions and earnings for graduates from poor backgrounds.
One report, Widening Participation in Higher Education in England , shows that much of the £77 million available for improving access in 2001-02 went to middle-class graduates returning to higher education instead of to poor first-timers.
The other, Improving Student Achievement in English Higher Education , shows that even when the poor complete degrees, they earn less on average than graduates from wealthy families.
A separate report by Brighton University director Sir David Watson, to be published next month in the Higher Education Quarterly , attacks the postcode premium initiative intended to support poor people in higher education. Sir David says it is so crude that it often subsidises wealthy students who just happen to live in areas designated as less affluent. Next month, funding chiefs will begin a consultation on replacing the scheme with a bonus for recruiting from state schools.
The reports are published in a week when ministers again attacked universities for doing to little to expand access.
Kicking off Aimhigher, the government's widening participation roadshow, higher education minister Margaret Hodge called on top research universities to emulate US Ivy League institutions in using talent scouts to seek the brightest people from poor neighbourhoods.
Ms Hodge said: "Our top universities must also take a long, hard look at their student intake. Over 85 per cent of those who go to top universities come from the top three income groups. Universities here must hunt out bright young people from disadvantaged areas."
Oxford and Cambridge universities responded by stressing their commitment to widening participation, as did other leading universities such as Bristol.
A more immediate problem for the government is how to deal with students, particularly poor ones, considering deferring entry to university this autumn. Many hope that the government review of student support will result in beneficial changes to the tuition fee and student loan system in subsequent years.
Education secretary Estelle Morris last week told the Commons that she did not foresee "significant changes" in student support for those starting this year and that those considering university should go this year. Her difficulty is in finding a solution that removes financial disincentives to study but assuages Treasury concerns about the cost to the public purse and Downing Street fears over the electoral effects of, for instance, a graduate tax.
Having to grapple with these issues is the last thing the government wants as it struggles to meet the manifesto commitment that half of all people under 30 should benefit from some higher education by 2010. Many in higher education now question whether that target is achievable. Others see it as an irrelevance and perhaps a distraction from the task of widening participation.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, agreed that access mechanisms were crude. But she said: "Universities' commitment to widening participation is not in doubt, but successful expansion must be accompanied by appropriate additional funding."
Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "The target is unlikely to be reached by just widening participation from lower socioeconomic groups in the short term."
Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The most important role for the government is to open up the university experience to everyone who wants to go, whether that is 40 per cent, 50 per cent or 60 per cent."
The Association of University Teachers said: "We support the 50 per cent target, but we would prefer to talk about meaningful expansion. It is about creating genuine demand among school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds."
Tom Wilson, head of universities for lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "It might be better to have clear targets per social groupI or we may end up by just raising the proportion of social groups I and II from 90 per cent to 100 per cent."
Guide to THES access elite stories
Jacks of all trades pave the way to participation
Leader: Institutions hold trump cards in widening access
Sheffield Hallam university
Institutions attacked for bias against poor
Hard-up white men continue to elude recruiters
US offers cash to lure poor to college