Higher education minister Margaret Hodge this week branded universities institutionally elitist as a two-year study found that selection procedures discriminated against the poor.
Ms Hodge said universities, even new ones, displayed a depth of cultural elitism found nowhere else in the public sector.
The report, published yesterday by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, exposes elitist attitudes among admissions staff.
Speaking at a widening-participation conference in London on Wednesday, Ms Hodge said the culture had to change. Universities had accepted the principle of widening participation but had yet to put it into action.
She said: "There is an institutional elitism which pervades the higher education system. I am not suggesting deliberate discrimination but what I think is embodied in the sector is that the criteria employed to select students deliberately exclude many young people from higher education.
"I want to build an intellectual elite not a social elite, which is what we have now."
The Ucas/Hefce Paving the Way project, based on a two-year study of more than 1,000 students, found that the admissions model that served the elitist higher education system of the past "continues to drive current admissions practice, which ill-serves existing applicant diversity and widening-participation objectives".
Poor students, mature students and those with vocational qualifications rather than A levels were disadvantaged. Coming from non-traditional backgrounds, they lacked the knowhow and family support to progress into higher education. Another study this week shows that old universities also discriminate against ethnic minorities, while new universities are biased in favour of some ethnic groups.
Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics and public policy at Bristol University and co-author of the report, said: "This is a wake-up call for higher education."
Speaking after the widening-participation conference, Ms Hodge said: "I think elitism is ingrained in the traditions and history of institutions and that is what must change.
"The systems are such that, whether it is in the way people are admitted to university or whether it is in the way they are treated while at university, it is more difficult for young people from poorer backgrounds.
"Universities cater for the middle classes and not for people from low-income backgrounds. What they now have to do is translate that commitment in principle to widening participation into experience and practice. They have to move from commitment to results."
Ms Hodge acknowledged that universities needed more money to reflect the additional costs of recruiting and retaining students from poor backgrounds. She said this had formed a significant part of the department's bid in next month's comprehensive spending review.
She said: "We need to think about what we offer young people in higher education. Bringing in a new cohort of people will need more investment in teaching and student support. We need to really value teaching in the higher education sector: all incentives in the past have focused on research."
But Ms Hodge made it clear that students would be expected to continue to pay their fair share of the costs of higher education. She said she wanted to change the culture that sees tuition fees and student loans as debt into one that treats such expenditure as an investment in future employment and earnings potential.
The Paving the Way survey looked at students from under-represented working-class backgrounds in East London, Birmingham, Lancashire and Yorkshire. It revealed a continuing reliance on A level and GCSE grades as the basis for admissions decisions.
"Ensuring a more equitable and sensitive admissions practice that can respond to applicant diversity and support widening participation is a complex and time-consuming task," the report says.
Responding to the charges of elitism, shadow higher education minister Alistair Burt said: "Margaret Hodge's obsession with class is threatening to overshadow sensible debate about the growth of higher education."
Labour peer Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "We recognise that certain groups are underrepresented. To achieve the government's target of 50 per cent by 2010 and its goals for widening participation, the necessary funds for the sector must be found."