The Tories have pledged to provide bursaries of pound;18,000 for apprentices wanting to go on to university.
David Willetts, the shadow higher and FE minister, told the party's conference in Birmingham on Monday that, if elected, the Conservatives would offer financial incentives for apprentices to pursue higher education, in order to get more people from "non-traditional backgrounds" to go to university.
The scheme would give students up to pound;6,000 a year annually for degrees or foundation degrees. Such scholarships would be awarded to 1,200 new people each year, focusing on those planning careers in science, technology and engineering.
Colleges already play a crucial role in apprenticeships and providing foundation degrees without tuition fees, but the Tory plans are intended to boost the number going on to university study.
The annual grants would pay the tuition fees for a foundation or honours degree - so long as the course was taken part-time by people in employment as part of a higher-level work-based learning programme relevant to their job.
The pound;20 million-a-year scheme will be paid for out of the Business Skills Development Fund, which was announced in July 2008, as part of the Conservatives' overhaul of apprenticeships and training.
Mr Willetts told the conference: "Let me be clear, while they are studying part-time and working part-time, they will have their education costs covered.
"This will create a robust, accessible vocational pathway to higher learning for the first time. By the end of a Parliament, over 5,000 people should have benefited. That represents a five-fold increase in the number of apprentices studying at university - spreading opportunity, widening access, changing lives by changing life chances.
"If you start as an apprentice phone engineer and show a real aptitude for the academic side too, surely you should have the chance to go on and study electrical engineering at university?
"If we want vocational skills to gain the respect they deserve, then people need to know they provide a ladder of opportunity and not a glass ceiling. That's why, for the first time, we are going to introduce proper support for apprentices who wish to study at a higher level."
Mr Willetts said the Tories would shift pound;100m from the Train to Gain programme, which is aimed at meeting the staff training needs of businesses, in order to fund adult learning places and help reverse the decline in post-16 numbers.
He also pledged to fund 100,000 more apprenticeship places and offered pound;2,000 to small businesses that take on apprentices.
Sa'ad Medhat, chief executive of the New Engineering Foundation, which promotes vocational training and education, said the Tory plans were a good response to the recommendations in the Leitch report on skills, which predicted economic decline if the country failed to improve skills in line with competition from emerging economies.
"There is a failure sometimes to grasp the difference between vocational education and work-based learning. This is really quite significant because the largest level of growth in skills needed for the country is in vocational skills at the post-16 level," he said.