Fewer than 3 per cent of students enrolled at Oxford and Cambridge are poor and white, an analysis has found.
The study, from an organisation that promotes wider access into higher education, revealed that prestigious universities have particularly low numbers of white students from poorer backgrounds.
There are just 2 per cent at the University of Cambridge, compared with 28 per cent at Teeside University, the analysis showed.
Among poorer white students going to university, 70 per cent go to newer universities, with lower numbers in Russell Group institutions. Oxford, Warwick and Bristol take fewer than 3 per cent and Durham admits 4 per cent.
The report calls on universities to set targets for admitting more white working-class students after it found that fewer than a fifth of English universities have specific objectives for this group.
The study looked at white students from “low-participation neighbourhoods”, which are areas in the country where fewer people usually go to university.
The numbers are particular low for London universities – many are 1 per cent or 2 per cent – but the analysis suggested a lack of low-participation neighbourhoods in the capital has skewed the figures.
Graeme Atherton, director of Neon and coauthor of the report, warned that “big variability exists” across the sector in the chances of poorer white students getting into university.
He said: “We need to know more about why this variability exists and do more to eliminate it.”
Recent government figures revealed that white disadvantaged boys are the least likely to access higher education, particularly at the most selective institutions.
Damian Hinds, education secretary, said: “We need to ask ourselves why that is and challenge government, universities and the wider system on it.
“Universities need to look at the data, including dropout rates, outreach activity and admissions policies to make sure they are improving their access and successful participation.
“It’s vital that we do this to make sure that no part of our country feels as though it is being left behind.”
The report was published as it emerged that entry requirements for some of Scotland’s most prestigious universities will be lowered to increase the number of students from diverse backgrounds.
The University of Edinburgh has introduced a programme ahead of the new academic year, which lowers the grades required by prospective students hoping to gain a place.
The University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen have also published two sets of entry requirements for each course.
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said institutions were committed to widening access to higher education and that 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England are more likely to go to university than ever before.
The spokesperson added: “But we know that a number of challenges and disparities remain between different groups. We are supporting universities in their efforts to build on work that has increased the number of students from diverse backgrounds in recent years.”
The UUK said efforts to improve social mobility could be helped by the reintroduction of “targeted maintenance grants for those most in need”.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies