One in four universities and colleges is not meeting their own targets for recruiting students from poorer backgrounds.
Twenty-three universities failed to meet their targets last year, including elite institutions such as Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, Bristol and University College, London.
The annual report from the Office for Fair Access (Offa) found that English universities and colleges spent £357m on recruiting and supporting poorer candidates through bursaries and scholarships.
It is over-simplistic to suggest that it is the size of bursaries alone that determine where students study Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary
Although elite universities can supply higher bursaries to students, the report showed that they are failing to attract students from poorer backgrounds, said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU).
“It is over-simplistic to suggest that it is the size of bursaries alone that determine where students study,” she said.
“The universities with the best records of recruiting students from the poorest backgrounds have higher drop-out rates and cannot offer bursaries to match the elite institutions.
“We need to provide better support for students from poorer backgrounds wherever they study.”
Universities and colleges last year received £1.57bn from higher fee income in 2009/10 when students paid £3,225 per year. Around 23 per cent of that was spent on higher-access schemes, and 271,000 young people who are on full state support were supported
The Offa report found that although more students are receiving financial support, the average bursary awarded is smaller.
Students from the poorest backgrounds receive a bursary of £935 a year, down from £942 in 2008/09 and £1,019 in 2007/08.
Offa Director Sir Martin Harris expressed concern about the finding. He said: “Developing access is at least as important as bursaries for students who have already joined,”
“That’s what elite universities need to work on more – identifying students at an early age who will then be plausible candidates.”