HIGHER education across Europe continues to be dominated by the middle classes, despite general growth in student numbers, a study has found.
Low levels of participation in higher education among people from lower socio-economic groups represent the biggest challenge to access targets set by the Council of Europe.
The council has called on member states to give priority in student support arrangements to those from lower income groups.
But a Europe-wide study of access, conducted by the European Access Network at the University of Westminster, found inflexible education and training systems were often as much to blame for poor participation as funding.
The study revealed that in Spain 80 per cent of children with parents in management positions were likely to go on to higher education compared with just 8 per cent of those with parents classed as unskilled workers. In France children of managers or professionals were judged to be over-represented by 34 per cent.
In Germany, where working-class children have been shown to be the least likely to progress to higher education, a system which streams pupils at secondary school level and offers few routes between streams is partly to blame.
Maggie Woodrow, director of the European Access Network, said: "Across Europe it has proved very hard to find any examples of good practice in helping more people from lower socio-economic groups gain access to higher education. It is the one area where there is a general problem."
The Council of Europe commissioned the study to check the feasibility of its access recommendations, which set objectives for admissions to higher education and equal opportunities.
The study found that wealthier countries were not necessarily any better than poorer ones in supporting efforts to widen access. "The only criterion for progress seems to be a real commitment on the part of the ministry and the institutions," Ms Woodrow said.