Quality chiefs are trying to scotch the perception that widening participation to higher education lowers the calibre of university students with a new "kitemarking" scheme for Access to Higher Education Courses.
The Quality Assurance Agency this week launched a licensing scheme for the United Kingdom's 1,300 access courses to guarantee that they all meet prescribed standards.
Kath Dentith, assistant director for access at the QAA, said that the scheme would help stop "myths and rumours" that access students were of a lower calibre than traditional A-level entrants.
Data shows that access students are as likely to gain a higher education qualification as any other student. Some 14,000 students entered higher education through access courses in 1997-98. Almost all were over 21 and few had prior qualifications.
Greater proportions of ethnic minority students and students from lower socio-economic groups entered higher education from access courses than from more traditional routes.
"It is possible with a properly regulated scheme to widen participation without threatening standards," said Ms Dentith.
The QAA will not inspect individual access course providers, but will inspect the 37 local consortia that accredit and award access courses, the Authorised Validating Agencies.
AVAs will be given QAA approval and will, in turn, approve course providers.
The courses have been largely unregulated since responsibility for supervision was transferred to the QAA in 1997.