The Labour government has failed to make any progress in raising standards in state schools, the Conservatives claimed today.
Shadow higher education minister Stephen O'Brien said new figures showing the proportion of state school pupils at universities had fallen are proof that the government had failed to break down education barriers.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) show 86.8 per cent of students entering full-time higher education in 2003 were from a state school, compared to 87.2 per cent in the previous year.
Elite universities showed the greatest drop, with Oxford's state school intake falling by 1.4 per cent to 53.8 per cent in 2003 - far short of the 75 per cent government target.
There is still some controversy over the way in which the statistics are calculated, with some institutions claiming they do not present an accurate picture.
But Mr O'Brien insisted the figures were a damning indictment on the government's progress, and called on ministers to "start raising the competitive level of academic standards in state schools" as the only way to get more state pupils into higher education.
"Despite all the government's initiatives and large sums of public money spent trying to encourage more state school pupils to enter higher education, there has been little progress," he said.
"Let us not hear any more from the government about this being the fault of the universities and the admissions system. It is quite clear that the failure lies at the heart of their own policy."
However, while higher education minister Bill Rammell said the government did have more to do in raising standards, he insisted it was also the responsibility of universities and colleges to reach out to a wider audience.
Today's figures showed the trend "remains broadly in the right direction", he said, and although there was more work to do, plans to improve the applications process and to raise standards in schools and colleges would take effect.
"But widening participation in higher education is a shared responsibility, and the challenge is for universities and colleges to reach out to communities, attract new students and offer new opportunities for everyone with the ability to participate," he added.