Top universities must reverse a slide towards inequality and do more to attract students from the poorest backgrounds, the outspoken new head of the universities' access watchdog has warned.
In his first interview since taking office, Professor Les Ebdon, the head of the Office for Fair Access said his regime would be “robust”, demanding tough new targets for taking in poorer students and monitoring the most elite institutions “very closely”.
Professor Ebdon’s appointment provoked huge controversy – particularly among Conservative backbenchers – when he talked about using the "nuclear option" of withdrawing permission from universities to charge more than £6,000 a year if they failed to meet their targets.
At present, most universities take in equal numbers of students from the 40 per cent of most disadvantaged backgrounds and the 20 per cent from the most affluent.
However, at the country's most selective universities. the ratio was one to six "with signs that it is sliding to one to seven", Professor Ebdon said.
"We need to reverse that trend and move it towards one to one," he added. "That is clearly something we should be aiming at as a society.”
"I feel passionate about widening participation and access - and that's because of my background.
"I was brought up on an estate - the first in my family and possibly the first on the estate to go to university. I went to Imperial College and it changed my life."
He added: "I want to give out a key message that OFFA will be more challenging. It will expect people to set challenging targets in their access agreements (which they have to sign to gain permission to charge more than £6,000 a year) and it will be monitoring them very closely."
Professor Ebdon remains a controversial figure. His appointment was vetoed by MPs on the Commons select committee monitoring universities – to whom he will be accountable. However, he was confirmed in office by Prime Minister David Cameron after Business Secretary Vince Cable stood by him. One Labour MP described the committee’s manoeuvring against him as “a political ambush”.
In his interview, he acknowledged OFFA had never used the "nuclear option" and said he hoped to reach targets through "robust negotiations" with the more selective universities - most of whom are members of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the most research intensive higher education institutions in the UK.
"If you look at the average across the whole sector (for admitting disadvantaged students), the story is a good one," he added. "Participation from disadvantaged groups has gone up recently and doesn't seem to have been affected by the new fees arrangements - but there has clearly been a challenge in the most selective universities where the gap is wide."
Part of the problem was caused by schools whose teachers "don't think their students can aspire to the most selective universities", he added.
"If you don't have aspirations, you see under-performance and that's something we need to challenge to tackle and I think it's probably the biggest challenge.
"If our universities are going to continue to be world-class they have to reach out to the full talent that is out there."
Research from the United States had shown that students from poorer backgrounds offered places with lower qualifications than those from more affluent homes often ended up with higher degree passes.
"There are a number of universities that have identified that students can achieve despite educational disadvantage and become very successful at university," he added. "However, that is a matter for them in their admissions processes."
The general secretary of the University and Colleges Union, Sally Hunt, called on Professor Ebdon to “stick to his guns” on fair access.
“It is encouraging that Professor Ebdon recognises that OFFA has more to do to diversify the make-up of the student body on our campuses,” she said. “The sector, more than ever, needs someone prepared to fight the corner of students from the poorest backgrounds.”
However, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK said: “It is quite right that universities in England are stretched by OFFA through their access agreements. However, final decisions on admissions will always remain for universities to determine.”
Asked if his critics were likely to continue to voice opposition to his appointment, Professor Ebdon said: "Who knows? I certainly won't be worrying about them. I've got a job to do and it's a very important job and I'll be my own toughest critic.
"It was a very tough experience (going through the appointment process) but it convinced me it was a job I really wanted to do."