Under the terms of a landmark review of higher education in England, institutions will lose the right to accept state funding unless they deliver on ambitious targets.
All universities will be forced to draw-up “access commitments” setting out plans to boost the number of poor undergraduates, it was disclosed
Institutions will be required to create recruitment targets, set aside cash for outreach work and outline measures to stop working-class teenagers dropping out of courses.
A report by Lord Browne, the former head of BP, said checks of these documents would be “tougher” for universities with the highest fees, “especially those seeking to charge above £7,000 a year”.
Agreements would be drawn up by universities themselves, he said, under the scrutiny of a new quango, the Higher Education Council, set up to regulate the system.
In a threat to vice-chancellors, Lord Browne also insisted the council would “reserve the right to refuse to agree an access commitment” if targets were not ambitious enough.
Under the plan, universities would then be unable to admit students with funding from Government-backed loans and grants.
It raises the prospect that elite universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, which are more likely to charge higher fees, would be put under more pressure to find places for students from working class backgrounds.
Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, said the measures would help ensure a sharp rise in tuition fees did not deter poorer teenagers from higher education.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “All universities will have to sign an access agreement, first of all. And those that want to charge more than £6,000 will have to have a more tightly-worded, more ambitious set of proposals for widening participation.”
Under the Lord Browne review – published on Tuesday – the existing £3,290 a year cap on fees will be removed altogether, allowing universities to raise fees as high as £14,000.
The Coalition said it endorsed the “main thrust” of the review but suggested fees would be set at £7,000.
Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, told the Commons that the case for even higher fees would be examined but this should be “conditional on demonstrating that funds would be invested in securing a good social mix, with fair access to students with less privileged backgrounds”.
Universities have been forced to draw up access agreements since 2006 when tuition fees were increased to around £3,000.
But the move has been criticised for failing to push poor pupils into the top universities.
Speaking on Wednesday, Prof Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research Development at Liverpool Hope University, said existing access agreements were “not worth anything”.
According to figures, students from deprived backgrounds have slightly less chance of gaining places at the most sought after institutions now they did 15 years ago.
In the mid-90s, some 3.3 per cent of students from deprived backgrounds were admitted to the top third of universities, but this proportion stood at 3.2 per cent last year, it was disclosed.
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