The number of undergraduates from deprived backgrounds has remained “flat” in recent years, despite more than £1 billion being spent attempting to boost access to universities, it was claimed.
In a report, the Office for Fair Access warned that more was needed to close the “unacceptably large” gap in the numbers of rich and poor students being recruited.
It said that the most selective universities had to spend more money and set “stronger access targets” in an attempt to create a more socially-mixed student body.
Prof Les Ebdon, the head of OFFA, has told institutions to “raise aspirations” among pupils at a younger age to encourage them to strive for higher education places.
The report, based on analysis of the 2011/12 academic year, showed the number of students admitted to each university with a full state-funded bursary – those from households earning less than £25,000 a year.
Numbers were as low as 14.3 per cent at Oxford, 14.8 per cent at Cambridge, 16.7 per cent at Bristol, 18.1 per cent at Imperial College London and 18.9 per cent at Durham.
By comparison, almost eight-in-10 students at East London University were on full state support, while numbers were above 50 per cent at Bedfordshire, Bolton, Bradford, Derby, Huddersfield, London Metropolitan, London South Bank, Teesside and West London.
OFFA has the power to fine institutions £500,000 or ban them from levying top-level tuition fees – a potentially crippling sanction – for repeatedly failing to do enough to boost access.
Prof Ebdon, former vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, who was appointed last year despite opposition from Tory backbenchers, said that most universities had met or exceeded targets they set for themselves.
But writing in the report, he added: “It’s not a wholly positive picture.
“We know that, despite their considerable efforts, the most selective institutions have made little or no headline progress in increasing access in recent years.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, said admissions had to be based on “merit”, suggesting that academics could not lower entry requirements just to hit targets.
“Our universities put a lot of effort into trying to help solve these problems but we cannot do so alone,” she said.
“Outreach work, including summer schools and mentoring, can be successful at inspiring students from a wide variety of backgrounds to apply to a range of universities and has an important role to play.
“But no-one can guarantee that those students will go on to apply successfully to Russell Group universities. It remains important that admission to university is based on merit and fairness to all candidates; any decisions about admissions must maintain high academic standards.”
All universities must publish annual “access agreements” setting out measures designed to recruit more poor students, the amount of money being spent on outreach programmes and recruitment targets.
Today’s report focuses on the final academic year before tuition fees were increased to a maximum of £9,000-a-year in 2012/13.
In all, universities spent £444.1m of their fee income on bursaries and outreach activities in 2011/12, compared with £424.2m a year earlier. In total, more than £1bn was spent on outreach when other funding is included.
In future, universities must spend more money on activities that are “most effective” at boosting recruitment, including academics staging master-classes with young children to raise their aspirations, the document suggests.
Prof Ebdon said adds: “Universities and colleges must get smarter in their investment if we are to maintain the improved participation from disadvantaged groups to the sector as a whole and start to close the unacceptably large participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged people that remains at our most selective universities.”