David Blunkett urged universities yesterday to judge applicants on their qualifications, not on their accents, and called for academics to be retrained to help them choose the students with the most potential regardless of background.
The Secretary of State for Education announced a £4m package to extend bonuses paid to universities that take a high proportion of students from areas with no history of sending young people into higher education. In a speech to the Association of University Teachers' (AUT) annual conference in Eastbourne, he criticised three leading medical schools - the Royal Free Hospital, Guy's and St Thomas' and St George's - for taking fewer than half of their students from state schools. "For universities to take such a small proportion of state students is not acceptable," Mr Blunkett said.
He praised the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology for taking about one in four students from low-income backgrounds, a policy that reflected the proportion of such children in the area.
Mr Blunkettpointed to a £10m pilot scheme, announced earlier this year, to provide £1,000 grants to sixth formers from deprived areas to help them aim for university. But he rejected claims that the drive to recruit more working-class students was lowering standards. He said it was "wholly wrong" to set quotas of lower entry standards for such pupils. "We are not talking about diluting the entry qualifications ... We are talking about equality of opportunity for these students," he said.
He pointed to research by the Sutton Trust, run by the millionaire philanthropist Peter Lampl, showing that a student from a private school was nearly 30 times as likely to get into one of the 13 leading universities as someone from a disadvantaged neighbourhood.
David Triesman, the AUT general secretary, welcomed efforts to improve access to university, but warned that simply lowering grades for children from poor backgrounds was "patronising".
Mr Blunkett repeated his opposition to top-up fees. Reacting to Lord Owen's call for universities to be allowed to charge the open-market rate for their courses in an article in The Independent yesterday, he said the powers to stop universities charging top-up fees would not be removed.
Mr Blunkett also called for vice-chancellors to review their own appointment procedures, to help remove the "glass ceiling" that prevented women and black academics taking up senior university posts.