Access chief says 'little or no progress' at most selective unis
England's most selective universities have made little or no progress in recruiting students from poor homes in recent years, a watchdog says.
Prof Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), says there have been improvements overall.
But some leading universities have not increased access, "despite considerable efforts", he says.
Universities have to show they are trying to boost access and investing in this to be able to charge higher fees.
Since the autumn, universities in England have been allowed to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition for under-graduates.
A joint report from Offa and the Higher Education Funding Council for England looks at how much money universities are spending on efforts to attract students from disadvantaged homes and on supporting them while they are at university.
It says about 35,000 students received funds from a new national scholarship fund set up by the government.
Prof Ebdon said that most universities had met or exceeded the targets they had set for themselves to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But in his foreword to 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."
These universities were being asked to spend more money on such efforts, he said.
Prof Ebdon wrote: "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.
"Where you come from is still much too closely related to where you will end up, and universities and colleges have a vital role in helping change this."
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities including Oxford and Cambridge, said highly selective institutions had made "considerable efforts" to improve access
"Russell Group universities are absolutely committed to ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students and spend more than other institutions on bursaries," she said.
"However, we face real difficulties as we seek to make rapid progress on achieving demanding and quite specific targets.
"There are complex socio-economic problems which mean students from disadvantaged backgrounds all too often fail to achieve the right grades in the right subjects or do not apply to selective universities.
"Our universities put a lot of effort into trying to help solve these problems, but we cannot do so alone."
The report suggests the total amount spent by the university sector on widening access stayed roughly the same in the past two years.
In a complicated picture, it shows institutions spent £444.1m of their higher fee income on bursaries and outreach activities in 2011-12, compared with £424.2m in 2010-11.
But it also shows that while this has gone up in cash terms, universities actually spent a slightly smaller percentage of their extra income from tuition fees compared with the previous year.
Offa says it is not concerned by this, which was due to the global economic situation, uncertainty about funding and institutions preparing for the new fee system.
Money spent on widening participation from funds apart from the higher tuition fee income fell to £624m from £645m the year before.
Offa says more universities are focusing on "outreach activities" that encourage young people to go to university and help them get the grades they need to get there, such as summer schools, mentoring and master classes.
Other access funds are typically spent giving students discounts on their fees and on accommodation or on bursaries - cash to support students while they are at university.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "I have always said that going to university should be about ability, not ability to pay. So it's encouraging that the National Scholarship Programme has helped more than 35,000 students from poor backgrounds in its first year.
"This has been supported by over £130m investment from government and institutions."