A report to be published next month suggests using discounts or guaranteed places in a package put together to attract working-class teenagers.
At present only 14 per cent of teenagers whose parents have manual jobs go to university, compared with 80 per cent of young people from professional households.
The report, commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, (CVCP) says universities may be missing out on talent and urges them to reform their admissions policies.
Universities praised in the report include Glamorgan, which guarantees an interview to pupils from 50 selected schools in deprived parts of South Wales, and offers them places at a discount of up to two A-level grades. Schools covered by the scheme receive visits from Glamorgan undergraduate "student tutors" and pupils undergo a 12-week course in university study skills.
At the University of Dundee,academics run 10-week summer schools aimed at children from poor backgrounds and offer guaranteed places to those who pass. The course, designed to give teenagers a chance to prove they can do degree-level work, had an 82 per cent pass rate last year.
Discounts are also available at Staffordshire University, where students from nearby Stafford College can cut the A-level results they need by three grades if they complete approved study skills and career planning courses. Increasing access to higher and further education is a central plank of government policy. Tony Blair has promised to create 500,000 new students by 2002.
The report is to be launched at a conference sponsored by The Independent on 2 November.
Diana Warwick, the CVCP's chief executive, insisted that reform did not represent dumbing down. "This issue is incredibly important. It's true to say that it's the biggest challenge the university sector is facing. Some call it the final frontier. These students do need a lot of support, but universities cannot afford to let standards slip," she said.
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