Bad schooling, not tuition fees, prevents the world's poor from going to university, according to a global study from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.
The report, by Daniel Levy of the State University of New York, says: "The main obstacle to access for those from poor backgrounds is not higher education tuition fees but rather a variety of factors that limit their chances to perform well through schooling and thus to be qualified for selective public higher education."
Last week, prime minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that the "absolute key" to getting students from a wide range of social backgrounds into university was improving school standards. "Ninety per cent of the children born from whatever social background who get two A levels go to university."
In Expanding Higher Education Capacity through Private Growth , Professor Levy charts the growth of private higher education over the 20th century.
Most of the expansion in higher education took place in the public sector until the third quarter. But in the last decades of the century, students increasingly looked to the private sector, which was often more flexible in allowing them to work and study at the same time.
"Capacity building through public institutions continues but has run into serious problems," Professor Levy says in the report.
Developing countries are particularly reliant on private growth. "It appears increasingly common for governments today in Asia, Eastern Europe and now even Africa and the Middle East to articulate a rationale for private provision of capacity beyond what the public can provide," Professor Levy says. In South Africa, half of all black students are in the private sector.
The growth of the private sector raises questions about quality. "Faculty tend to be part time, often without advanced academic credentials. Research is rare, especially basic research. Scholarly cross-fertilisation across the sciences and humanities is likewise rare. Libraries and laboratories are meagre," the report says.
But the desire to control quality through regulation can inhibit private growth. "One of the common cries of private higher education is that (it is) crippled in (its) ability to offer opportunities for students, not only by the content of the regulations but by the uncertainty and time lags often involved," the report says.
And it says that public institutions "take advantage of their privileged position to influence the regulatory framework in ways that inhibit private growth".
Svava Bjarnasan, observatory manager, said: "In its Constructing Knowledgeable Societies report last year, the World Bank advised a couple of developing countries not to regulate the private sector so that it could grow. And private higher education does not necessarily mean poor quality."
The observatory was set up by Universities UK and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.