Attempts to encourage children from poorer homes to go to university have failed, a report has warned.
It revealed that it is middle classes who have benefited more in the last 15 years from the expansion of higher education, with just a 5% increase in degrees among children of working-class parents.
The study, by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) based at Essex University, analysed the social backgrounds of almost 34,000 adults aged between 22 to 34 and 37 to 49. The younger group would have gone to university after higher education expanded in 1992. The older group would have gone to university before 1992.
The findings show that among the 37 to 49-year-olds, just over a quarter (25.7%) had a degree. This rose to just over a third (34.3%) for those aged 22-34, a rise of 8.6%. But the researchers found a marked difference in the increase when they looked at the socio-economic background of those included in the study.
The study found that among those whose parents had a "managerial and professional" job when they were 14 years old there was a 10% rise between the two groups in the numbers gaining a degree.
For those whose parents had "intermediate occupations" such as clerical or sales jobs, the increase in degrees between the two age groups was over 11%. But for those whose parents had "routine or manual" jobs the rise was only 5%. The researchers conclude that the major increase in people going to university in recent years is largely down to rising numbers of students with parents who hold white-collar jobs.
Report co-author Professor Peter Elias of Warwick University said: "One of the most important, and we've yet to verify this, I would say is the way in which higher education has clung on to the gold standard of A-levels and the way in which pupils are prepared through school to get good grades for university.
"The findings reflect in part the restructuring of the UK economy over the last 40 years, which has seen a decline in manual occupations and an increase in white-collar jobs."
He added: "Nonetheless, given the remarkable increase in the participation of young people in higher education that has taken place over the last 20 years, the brief analysis presented here reveals little evidence that the much-vaunted policy ambition - to provide better access to higher education to those from less-privileged backgrounds - has been successful."
The report used new research from Understanding Society, a longitudinal study of 40,000 UK households, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).