Student number controls could have an adverse impact on the levelling-up agenda, said Universities UK.
Government plans for minimum grade requirements to access student loans could “entrench” the disadvantage of the poorest students, according to universities.
The Government launched a consultation on its plans for higher education, including the introduction of a minimum of two E grades at A-level or GCSE passes in English and maths to access loan finance.
Universities UK said poorer students were more likely to have lower GCSE and A-level results, but data from the Office for Students had shown that those with the lowest A-level grades were more likely than average to complete their courses.
“This demonstrates that prior attainment data does not determine a student’s pathway in higher education,” UUK said.
“Those who receive free school meals have consistently lower than average GCSE attainment, and those who are considered the most disadvantaged have consistently lower A=level attainment.
“This is because opportunity in terms of schooling is not evenly spread, with many students not receiving adequate support at secondary school.”
UUK said a minimum entry requirement could “prevent some of the most disadvantaged students from achieving their potential and entrench their disadvantage”.
The group added that proposed controls on student numbers would have an “adverse impact on Government objectives such as levelling up”, while also having a “disproportionate impact” on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It said number controls had previously been removed because they represented a “cap on aspiration”, and that as pupils from poorer backgrounds were more likely to be combining studies with paid work or caring responsibilities, they had less flexibility over where they lived and what they chose to study, with many needing to live near their university.
Basing number controls on current or past employment levels could also risk narrowing the UK skills base, UUK said, noting that the 2011 cap on nursing students had led to “chronic shortages” in the number of nurses.
UUK said number controls seemed to be a “heavy-handed” approach and were “at odds” with Government plans for a lifelong loan entitlement, whereby people can “retrain flexibly at any time in their lives”, worth the equivalent of £37,000 or four years of post-18 education.
Last week, the Russell Group of 24 leading universities said that freezing tuition fees would put pressure on funds for teaching, estimating that the average deficit per UK undergraduate taught will more than double from £1,750 in 2021/22 to around £4,000 in 2024/25, with deficits across all subjects.
Professor Steve West, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “Universities oppose student number caps in the strongest possible terms because they will hurt disadvantaged students the most.
“We agree with Government that geography should not limit opportunity, and avoiding student number caps is essential if we are to succeed in creating more opportunities to upskill for everyone, regardless of their background.
“All reforms to higher education need to be in the best interests of students as well as universities, business and society. We remain committed to working together with Government to ensure future policy decisions reduce inequalities and wholeheartedly support the levelling-up agenda.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We have more 18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before, but it is in no-one’s interests for young people to be pushed on to higher education courses that do not lead to good jobs or before they are academically ready to benefit.
“We have not proposed to bar anyone from going to university; rather, we are starting a conversation on minimum entry requirements and asking whether young people should be pushed straight into a full degree, without being prepared for that level of study.”