Universities have been told to dramatically increase the number of disadvantaged students they admit by 2020.
The Office for Fair Access, the admissions watchdog, wants elite universities to increase admissions of the UK's poorest students from 3.2% to 5% and increase the number of poor school leavers entering higher education from 20% in 2011 to 36% in 2019/20.
According to figures from The Times, this could see almost a doubling of student numbers from around 22,000 in 2011 to 40,000 in 2020. Currently, young people from privileged backgrounds are 6.8 times more likely to enter selective universities than those from the poorest families.
Elite university leaders have questioned the report's targets. Speaking to The Times, a spokesperson for the Russell Group, which includes universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, said: "We are concerned ... it could disincentivise universities from continuing with some activities in deprived areas which target the students who are hardest to reach."
"Universities do not have the power to solve the root cause of the problem of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which are complex but include underachievement at school and poor advice and information for students."
Commenting on the new strategic plan for universities professor Les Edbon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: "There are now record rates of disadvantaged young people entering higher education and we are also starting to see significant progress at universities with the highest entrance requirements.
"Despite this recent progress at highly selective universities, the participation gap between the most and least advantaged at these institutions is still much too high," said professor Edbon.
"For fair access to be truly meaningful, universities and colleges need to consider how they can best support disadvantaged students throughout their studies, and as they prepare for life after graduation. So, while the biggest challenge for highly selective universities is to reduce the participation gap, the challenge for many other universities is to improve outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds," he added.
Last year the think-tank CentreForum recommended ranking universities on the success of their poorest students after leaving university.