Universities wanting to raise tuition fees will have to satisfy a new "fair access" watchdog that they are making efforts to attract students from poorer backgrounds.
Universities will have to sign "access agreements" with the new watchdog
The Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, has announced the setting up of the Office for Fair Access, as an independent body dedicated to "widening participation in higher education".
Mr Clarke wants universities to broaden their appeal to young people from a wider range of backgrounds - and he says that institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge need to shake off their "Brideshead Revisited image".
Universities wanting to charge students more than £1,100 in tuition fees will have to agree to five-year contracts with the new watchdog, setting out how they would attract more students from less well-off families.
These "access agreements" can require universities to run outreach projects with local schools, provide bursaries and set internal targets for widening the social background of applicants.
"We must tackle the under-achievement of the many young people who come from less advantaged backgrounds and do not realise their educational potential and do not benefit from higher education," said Mr Clarke.
The watchdog unveiled by the education secretary, although with sanctions over fees, will be seen as a light-touch, rather than interventionist, regulator.
There had been warnings that this would be a form of social engineering, which could discriminate against talented pupils from wealthier families or independent schools.
But Mr Clarke has promised that the regulator will not interfere with admissions policies or set external targets or quotas for university intakes.
And independent schools have welcomed the outcome, with the leaders of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and Girls' Schools Association approving the role of the watchdog.
The university lecturers' union, the Association of University Teachers, was less impressed, arguing that the main barrier to access was top-up fees.
HAVE YOUR SAY
The responsibility for encouraging poorer applicants should lie with secondary education
"Ministers have created a Frankenstein's monster, in top-up fees, and now they're setting something up to give the impression that everything will be okay," said assistant general secretary, Paul Cottrell.
The Conservatives have promised to scrap the watchdog if they are elected.
The Shadow Education Secretary, Damian Green, said the access regulator would be "unfair and ineffective".
And he attacked the education secretary's "sneering remarks" about Oxford and Cambridge.
"Cheap insults directed at some of our world-class universities show that New Labour will still reach for the class war rhetoric when it is in trouble," said Mr Green.
The plan for an access regulator was introduced as part of the review of higher education funding.
As a counter-weight to increasing fees to be paid by students, the government announced that an access regulator - nicknamed Oftoff - would ensure that universities made serious efforts to recruit students from less well-off backgrounds.
But having moved to counter claims that higher education would be too expensive for the poor, the government faced criticism that it was attempting to introduce quota systems against the rich.
This debate was fuelled by claims, which were denied, that Bristol University was favouring state school pupils over applications from independent schools.
Mr Clarke has also emphasised that attracting a wider range of applications is a more important objective than changing admissions systems.
According to the education secretary, there is little difference in the acceptance rates of rich and poor - but poorer students remain much less likely to make an initial application.