Admissions statistics revealed 78 per cent of the 300,000 white students who applied to university last year ended up with a place. But while 76 per cent of Asians gained a place, only 65 per cent of black students were accepted on to degree or diploma courses.
Figures produced by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that black people remain under-represented among applicants to university. Only 3 per cent of university applicants are black, a figure that has remained unchanged for five years.
Student leaders and academics called for universities to set tough targets for attracting more people from ethnic minorities into higher education. A report on ethnic minority staff in universities, due to be published next month, is expected to provide evidence of discrimination.
Vice-chancellors denied yesterday that universities discriminated against ethnic minority students and said increasing participation was a "long and painstaking task". They said the figures hid the many students from ethnic minorities who apply for part-time courses, and are therefore not included in annual university entrance statistics.
Midge Purcell, of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "This is pretty worrying as an overall trend. Universities have to clear the barriers to black students."
Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Two years into a Labour government we should be seeing some of the early effects. If the strategies are not beginning to show a change the Government will have to bring forward more proposals for opening up the universities.
"The NUS would be in favour of setting quite harsh targets. But if people are not encouraged to make the right choices at 16 there will be problems when they come to university."
Critics say the trend has its roots in the school system, with just 29 per cent of Afro-Caribbean pupils achieving five good grades at GCSE, though girls do better than boys.
Professor Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University, said 45 per cent of his students were from ethnic minorities. He said: "There are two groups which have so far not increased participation as much as we would like: the Afro-Caribbean community and the white working class.
"I don't believe universities are deliberately discriminating against groups of students, but there is no simple answer. We just have to plug away at this. It really is painstaking work in the community to build trust which produces results. I do think that people should take account of the whole range of things that potential students bring."
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "CVCP is determined to lead the sector in tackling the access issue."