Top universities have been told to significantly increase their intake of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and to work more closely with schools to improve access for students from poor homes.
Admissions watchdog the Office for Fair Access (Offa) said the proportion of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of homes who reached the most selective universities should rise from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20.
It added that the proportion from the second most disadvantaged group should also increase, from 5.1 per cent in 2014-15 to 7 per cent in 2019-20.
Figures from Offa reveal that young people from the most privileged backgrounds are 6.8 times more likely to enter highly selective universities than those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The watchdog wants this figure to fall to 5 times by the end of the decade.
It defines “disadvantaged” young people as those from lower socio-economic groups, disabled learners, those from some ethnic minorities and care-leavers.
Professor Les Ebdon, Offa’s director, said the plan was “ambitious” but that the lifting of a cap on student numbers this year would provide “a real opportunity to make further, faster progress”.
“Today, in the 21st century, your chances of being able to go to university, particularly a highly selective university, are still limited by your background,” he added.
Offa’s report says that previous increases in university student numbers have “helped make families, communities and schools from disadvantaged areas more familiar with higher education”.
The watchdog said it would support an increase in the number of disadvantaged pupils entering top universities by requiring institutions to “consider how they can best work collaboratively with schools, colleges and employers” to improve students’ performance throughout their education.
Universities should offer extra support to groups of students under 18 that were “at risk of not succeeding in their studies” because of their socio-economic background or other measures of under-representation, it said.