UNIVERSITIES are neglecting schoolchildren from Britain's poorest families, leaving a large pool of talent untapped, according to vice-chancellors.
While 16 out of 20 teenagers from higher-income families go on to universities, 17 out of 20 from low-income groups do not. The overall figure for the UK is just over one-third.
A day-long conference on access to higher education, organised by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), heard that disadvantaged children were increasingly put off by the prospect of student debts.
Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, told more than 200 academics: "It is a sad fact, but for many of the UK's least privileged, education stops at 16 and the prospect of going on to university at this stage is not even an option for consideration. This is a huge waste of talent."
A 150-page report entitled From Elitism to Inclusion detailed 14 examples of good practice where higher education institutions had instigated successful policies for attracting poorer students. Other universities were called on to adopt elements of the case studies and develop their own strategies.
Ms Warwick said: "Getting these young people to think of higher education is one of the toughest challenges we face. What they need is encouragement, recognition of achievement and support."
Maggie Woodrow, author of the report and executive director of the European Access Network at the University of Westminster, said targeting under-privileged children from an early age was vital in encouraging talented pupils to enter higher education.
The report called on institutions to devise admission policies which provided real incentives to disadvantaged children.
Monitoring at universities has shown them to be just as high-achieving as students from wealthier backgrounds. Research by Warwick University showed students from state schools 33 per cent more likely to get a first than their counterparts from independent schools.
Ms Woodrow said: "Given the public money being spent on education, the people who need it most are not getting their share of it. Part of the problem is the assumption that lower class means lower standards."
In the keynote speech to the conference in London, lifelong learning minister George Mudie said: "Social background is still a major factor in any child's educational prospects. These inequalities must be ended."
CVCP representatives are due to meet with Department for Education and Employment officials to discuss the various issues arising from the conference.