The proposed university "access regulator" will not interfere in admissions policies, the government has promised.
The 'minutiae' of applications will be left alone, the DfES says
The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) said the central purpose of the change was to give all bright pupils a "fair crack of the whip".
The comment comes after Bristol University was accused of discriminating against privately educated applicants.
The government has also been accused of promoting "positive discrimination" in the wake of the controversy.
Its white paper published in January, recommending annual university tuition charge fees of up to £3,000, said the regulator would promote "more rigorous admissions regimes".
But the DfES said this would not involve interfering in the "minutiae" of admissions procedures.
A spokesman said the plans would be published in the next week or so.
'Not Big Brother'
He added: "Statistics demonstrate very clearly that bright state school pupils and those from less well-off families don't apply in any great numbers to the best universities in the country.
"It is only right that we ensure that universities are doing all they can to encourage applications from pupils from whatever background."
Last month, private schools announced a boycott of Bristol, claiming the university discriminated against their pupils in favour of those from
poorly performing comprehensives who had done better than usual.
The row led to accusations that ministers were trying to rig the social make-up of universities in favour of working-class students.
The DfES spokesman hinted that the watchdog would not in fact be called an "access regulator", to make this shift of emphasis clear.
The watchdog would look at whether universities had "high quality"
programmes for encouraging state school pupils to apply to them and "meaningful bursaries" to help them to be able to afford to attend.
Statistics showed that bright state school pupils were more likely to be accepted into Britain's elite universities - apart from Oxford and Cambridge - than their privately educated counterparts, he went on.
The problem was that they tended not to apply in the first place.
The spokesman said: "The regulator will focus on the processes in place, to encourage more applications from those backgrounds.
"Essentially, it will not be a Big Brother process, it will be far more
organic, working closely with universities - not against them - to ensure we get more applications.
"Having some heavy-handed approach to admissions policies would be arbitrary and would not actually tackle the problem.
"The problem is not about what happens once these children apply, the problem is getting them to that state."
But shadow education secretary Damian Green said: "The government appears to be planning yet another climbdown on its university policy.
"It should scrap the 'access regulator' altogether, rather than leave this limp compromise in place.
"The solution to increasing access for disadvantaged children lies in improving schools, not fiddling university admissions policy."