By Gary Eason
BBC News education correspondent
Lord Mandelson said inadequate advice barred too many able young people
A-levels are not sufficient to identify the aptitude and potential of all those who should benefit from a university education, the government says.
A framework for higher education in England over the next decade says social mobility must be reinvigorated.
Innovation and Skills Secretary Lord Mandelson said priority would go to new routes into higher education, especially for older students.
Research money should focus on science clusters, and teaching must improve.
Students, as consumers, needed to have far more information about courses, such as teaching quality and future employability.
Lord Mandelson said he would also shortly be announcing the promised independent review of tuition fees.
He said that would seek "a balanced approach without placing a burden on any single source of funding".
It will not report until after the general election - with neither of the main political parties wanting to campaign on a possible significant rise in fees above the present £3,225 a year.
Families and schools
Launching the framework document, Higher ambitions - the future of universities in a knowledge economy, Lord Mandelson said ministers' vision was one of strong, autonomous institutions with diverse missions.
But they needed to promote opportunity more widely to those who could benefit, and to narrow the attainment gap between the higher and lower socio-economic groups highlighted by Alan Milburn's report earlier this year.
He told reporters: "Nobody should be disadvantaged or penalised on the basis of the families that they come from or the schools they attended, and the way in which a simple assessment based on A-level results might exclude them."
This was not a class issue: "There are middle class pupils who don't perform well, that have a strong aptitude and strong potential," he said.
He said many prestigious institutions already used contextual data about applicants' backgrounds to consider their aptitude and potential alongside their academic attainment.
The Director of Fair Access, Sir Martin Harris, has been asked to produce a report next spring on how more can be done to widen access to the most highly selective institutions for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Lord Mandelson added that this was not something that he could compel universities to do and he was not seeking to dictate or control their admissions policies.
Arts and humanities
He denied that the call for stronger ties between universities and industry, with higher education as a driver of economic recovery and growth, was too "utilitarian".
First degree full-time: 1,108,685
Other undergraduate full-time: 123,320
Postgraduate full-time: 248,380
"I would be very disappointed if people saw it in that way," he said.
"There is public value in every subject and academic discipline provided by universities.
"They are there to provide us with both civilisation and competitiveness."
Higher Education Minister David Lammy said the arts and humanities also enriched the country - but science had fallen behind so much prior to 1997 that a Save British Science campaign had been launched.
Lord Mandelson said "Stem" courses - science, technology, engineering and maths - cost more to run so attracted higher investment, while there was an economic need to stimulate demand for them.
The Conservatives broadly welcomed the framework, and agreed there should be no "rush to judgement" on tuition fees.
But they said widening access had been too slow, and the funding of part-time students was "clearly indefensible".
Liberal Democrat spokesman Stephen Williams said: "The government has colluded with the Tories to keep tuition fees off the agenda until after polling day."
He said the Lib Dems wanted to scrap tuition fees and would fight any attempt to raise the cap.
University associations welcomed the framework.
The Million+ group said modern universities particularly liked the promise to fund excellent research wherever it was found - rather than "a simplistic policy of research concentration" that would stifle innovation and postgraduate opportunities.
But the framework would cut little ice without "an Obama-style investment boost".
The 1994 Group of research-based universities said they were spending millions on outreach work to widen access.
"We need to complement much needed investment in science subjects with continuing investment in arts, humanities and social sciences. We must protect our entire research base."
The 22 Alliance universities said they were well placed to deliver government's priorities.
"With their origins in the engineering and design era of the Victorian Industrial Revolution, Alliance universities have a long and successful history of shaping the new economy.
"These are now major, dynamic, business-like universities that work effectively with business and are hubs for new and rapid-growth industries."
Some of England's newest universities, university colleges and smaller specialist institutions - represented by GuildHE - believe they stand to do well in a system with a greater emphasis students' experiences.
GuildHE said such a regime would play to their strengths - including close individual attention to students, support and career guidance.