Elite universities must recruit more talented students from poor homes, England’s higher education access watchdog has told BBC News.
The head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa) said universities must “reach out to the widest possible pool of talent”.
Prof Les Ebdon highlighted Offa data showing the proportion of poor students at top universities had fallen.
He said wider access to university was of “national importance”.
Offa research indicates the richest 20% of young people are seven times more likely to enter the most selective institutions than the poorest 40%.
This ratio has risen from six times more likely in the mid-1990s.
Professor Ebdon, who took up his role this week, said: “The challenge is clear in a number of selective universities that they are finding difficulty in reaching out to the whole of the talent pool.
“It is nationally a very important thing that we are able to reach out to the widest possible range of students.
“My passion about access and opportunity comes from my own background and experience and my own knowledge that we live in a world now that if we are to thrive as a nation we need to build on our intellectual abilities and our creativity – and if we are going to be successful in that we must be able to access the whole pool of potential talent in this country.
“We can’t cut our most selective universities off from the all of the potential academic talent there is out there.”
Prof Ebdon said Offa would help universities set and meet challenging targets on widening participation from less privileged social groups, but he added there was no question of punishing universities who did not meet the targets.
Asked whether top universities should allow bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter with lower grades, he said Offa had no powers to interfere with admissions criteria but he would support universities that decided to go down that path.
“A number of universities have conducted research and have shown that students admitted with lower grades from poorly performing schools then go on to outperform those with slightly better grades from highly performing schools.
“Universities have always looked for academic potential and where there is good sound research showing that is a sensible thing to do and that it’s working then I would be supportive of a university going down that route if that’s the decision they make.”
Universities wanting to charge higher tuition fees have to satisfy Offa they are doing enough to promote access for poorer or under-represented groups.
Prof Ebdon’s appointment as head of Offa caused a political storm earlier this year after MPs on a commons committee attempted to block his selection.
The former vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, was the outspoken head of the Million+ group, representing new universities.
MPs on the business, innovation and skills select committee voted against his appointment, saying they “were not convinced by Prof Ebdon’s descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities”.