Targets are to be set detailing the numbers of poorer people universities must recruit in each English region, funding council officials confirmed this week.
A document to be published soon will set out targets for higher education in each of the government's nine regions, including London. The targets will be geared to the current levels of participation in each region, and universities may be expected to tackle pockets of particularly low participation at a sub-regional level.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England and Learning and Skills Council document sets out the next stage of the Partnerships for Progression initiative. In meeting the targets, universities will be expected to work with further education colleges, training providers, employers and schools.
Further details were unavailable as The THES went to press, and it is unclear whether there will be any financial incentives to reach the regional targets.
But the joint Hefce-LSC document is also expected to confirm that individual universities' widening participation strategies will be made a condition of grant. Failure to submit a strategy will incur financial penalties.
Hefce chief executive Sir Howard Newby told a conference this week that the council would set targets for widening participation. He said: ÒWe will expect them to deliver against those targets.
"Sir Howard promised a very significant increase in the money for widening participation.
But he said that higher education institutions could only do so much to widen participation by the poorest students. He likened the situation to a supply chain where higher education institutions could only supply courses for which there was demand.
Sir Howard said: "Demand is flat. Supply and demand are virtually in equilibrium. The higher education sector cannot deliver expansion on its own. The demand for higher education is the key, not the supply... and, unlike Marks and Spencer, I cannot change it.
"The conference, organised by the Department for Education and Skills, focused on the need to base government education policy on solid research evidence.
Education minister Ivan Lewis, who is responsible for analytical services and research at the DFES, said that the department was striving to make the best possible use of research evidence to inform policy.
His words will do little to reassure Universities UK, which is worried that the DFES has failed to research the potential impact of deregulating tuition fees on students and universities. Higher, and possibly deregulated fees are being considered as part of the government's forthcoming higher education strategy document, which was signalled in Wednesday's Queen's Speech.
UUK chief executive Baroness Warwick wrote to education secretary Charles Clarke last week pointing out that UUK had offered to help the government model the potential effects but had been rebuffed by higher education minister Margaret Hodge.
Baroness Warwick said: ÒWe are not aware that this important feasibility work has been carried out. Without detailed modelling of both the short and longer-term impacts on students and their families, on the capacity of the sector as a whole to deliver government priorities and on individual institutions, there is a real danger that damaging, unforeseen circumstances could emerge later.
"UUK leaders expect to meet Mr Clarke shortly to discuss higher education's funding concerns prior to the strategy document, which was delayed until January following Mr Clarke's appointment.
A DFES spokeswoman said: "The implications of all policies under consideration will of course be fully evaluated."