Fair access and widening participation currently occupy a prominent position in the UK higher education agenda, but these terms remain ambiguous. In this paper we identify two prominent strands of policy in the government's approach to access and the widening of participation and contrast these with a third, more progressive perspective. The academic strand seeks to attract ‘gifted and talented’ young people into an unreformed higher education system. The second strand, which we term the utilitarian approach, posits a need for reform. However, this is undertaken largely to meet the requirements of employers and the economy. In contrast, a transformative approach values diversity and focuses on creating a system of higher education that does not place the burden of change upon potential entrants. This framework is used to explore some of the implications of the government's White Paper The future of higher education. First, the purpose of higher education is discussed, with particular reference to the distinction between economic and social objectives. Second, the government's view of the structure of the higher education sector is examined, by scrutinizing the notion of institutional differentiation and the role of the access regulator. We conclude that within a more differentiated higher education sector different aspects of the access discourse will become dominant in different types of institutions.