Collaboration between colleges and universities is vital to ensure the highest number of people have the opportunity and breadth of choice when making decisions about higher education, Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes has said.
His comments come as education secretary Gavin Williamson warned universities they must "up their game" and help disadvantaged students, with new data revealing the wide gulf in pupils' chances studying for a degree.
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Recruiting poorer students
Mr Williamson has told institutions they must do more to recruit poorer students and cut drop out rates, arguing that "wasted potential" must not go unchecked.
In one in 10 local areas in England, fewer than a quarter of state school teenagers go on to study for a degree, according to a PA news agency analysis of new official data.
The experimental figures, published by the Office for Students (OfS) show that nationally, state school pupils from the most advantaged areas of England are almost two-and-a-half (2.4 times) more likely to go on to higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged parts of the country.
The data divides England into 6,764 local areas and calculates the higher education participation rate of mainstream state school pupils living in each place.
Analysis by the Press Association shows that in 655 of these areas (9.7%) fewer than 25 per cent of pupils go on to university.
In just 0.3 per cent of local areas (20 places) more than three quarters (75 per cent) of pupils go on to study for a degree.
Mr Williamson said universities need to make more progress on improving access and participation.
"It is not good enough that white working class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others. We cannot let this wasted potential go unchecked any longer.
"I am pleased to see the work that some universities are doing. It was a privilege to address vice-chancellors on this important issue at the recent UUK conference, but disparity remains a problem.
"I want all universities, including the most selective, to do everything they can to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education, but they also need to keep them there and limit the numbers dropping out of courses. My message is clear - up your game and get on with it," he said.
Helping the most disadvantaged
David Hughes said: "I am pleased that the secretary of state is raising the issue of access and achievement in higher education. It is vital that we have a system in which everyone, regardless of background, upbringing, age or family income should be able to get in and get on in education and in work. A range of approaches to ensure fair access and achievement as well as a wide range of opportunities in colleges and universities is required to achieve that."
He added: "Colleges play a huge role not just in helping young people to flourish at university as well as offering top rate higher education themselves. They provide opportunities to people that may not have even considered studying for a degree or who believed university wasn’t for them."
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "Universities share the government's desire to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education and ensure that all students are supported to succeed during their studies.
"Progress is being made, with 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England more likely to go to university than ever before.
"However, we know there is more work to do and universities are redoubling efforts to improve access and support retention. Universities have recently set themselves even more ambitious targets to improve equality of opportunity in their new access and participation plans in England. Universities UK has also published recommendations on how universities can address gaps in attainment for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) students as well as drop-out rates.
"Universities are also calling on the government to prioritise policies to quicken the progress by reintroducing maintenance grants for students most in need, helping reduce drop-out rates and financial barriers to university."