New research that has tracked an entire generation of state-school pupils shows that the smaller number of students from poorer backgrounds in higher education is almost entirely explained by lower achievement in school.
A study of 600,000 pupils, examining the academic attainment of every state-school student in England who turned 18 in 2004-05, has found that, once achievement is taken into account, pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more or less equally likely to go to university as their more advantaged peers - and to a university of equal status.
The researchers, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute of Education, University of London, and the London School of Economics, say poorer students tend to attend lower-achieving secondary schools and tackling underachievement at school level is key to widening university participation.
Anna Vignoles of the Institute of Education and principal investigator of the Economic and Social Research Council project told Times Higher Education: "There is a huge debate about universities keeping poor students out and about selection by elite universities.
"Our research shows that state-school pupils from poor backgrounds remain far less likely to go to university, and we must not lose sight of that. But, equally, when we allow for how well they do in school, students from poorer backgrounds are just as likely to go to university as students from better-off backgrounds."
Analysis of the data has also found that poorer students are more likely to drop out of university.
The 20 per cent most deprived pupils in England are about three percentage points more likely to drop out than the most advantaged 20 per cent. However, when prior achievement was taken into account, the gap narrowed to a one percentage point difference in drop-out rate.
Ethnic minority groups are more likely to go to university than white British students, once school attainment is taken into account, the data show.
But Black-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and other black students tend to attend lower-status higher education institutions than white British students with similar levels of achievement.
In contrast, Chinese, other Asian and mixed-ethnicity groups tended to attend higher-status institutions.
The study, which followed students from age 11 to age 19, is the first on participation in higher education to use data for an entire cohort of students, instead of a sample.
Widening participation in the spotlight
The Teaching and Learning Research Programme is the UK's biggest educational research scheme.
It has run since 2000 and is the largest programme run by the Economic and Social Research Council. Some £32 million of funding comes from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Executive and the former Department for Education and Skills.
The latest projects, the results of which were announced this week, are funded with £2 million from Hefce and focus on higher education.
Researchers used quantitative and qualitative methods to examine different aspects of widening participation. The TLRP is due to end in November. An extra £12 million fund devoted to technology-enhanced learning will run until 2012.