Universities have been told they must work more closely with schools in poor areas to boost the numbers of disadvantaged teenagers studying for a degree.
New government guidance says that higher education institutions should be collaborating with schools to raise the aspirations of children and inspire them to go on to university.
It also says that recruiting more white working-class boys and cutting the high drop-out rates for black students should be key priorities for universities.
The guidance came as Greg Dyke, the former BBC director general who stepped down as chancellor of the University of York last year, said it was a “total cop-out” to blame inequality in university admissions on the schools sector.
He said that leading unversities could tackle the problem themselves by lowering entry requirements for bright students from state schools.
The new government guidance comes after Prime Minister David Cameron warned educational institutions, the police, the military and the courts they were all the focus of a new effort to tackle social inequality, suggesting it might be fuelled by ”ingrained, institutional and insidious” racism.
Under the new guidance, universities will be expected to build partnerships with schools to target the neighbourhoods where low numbers of children go on to study for a degree, as well as offering better support to students with learning difficulties.
Universities minister Jo Johnson said: “Going to university opens doors to a brighter future, but too many students are still missing out. We are asking universities to go further and faster than ever before, especially the most selective institutions.
“We want to see smarter spending from universities, with more outreach into neighbourhoods with low university entry rates and much deeper partnerships with local schools.”