This paper considers the history of access to higher education in England and reviews the evidence on the progress made in widening participation and ensuring ‘fair access’ under the New Labour governments of 1997–2010 and, insofar as is possible, under the Coalition government that has been in office since 2010. While recognising that we need also to consider the nature of what students gain access to, the focus of this particular review is on evidence about inequalities in access to higher education as presently constituted, including in particular access to what are often regarded as the most ‘prestigious’ institutions. The paper considers the various ‘barriers’ to widening participation that are said to exist—from finance, aspiration and awareness and prior attainment—and assesses claims that socio‐economic inequalities in access largely disappear once prior attainment is taken into account. It then discusses the role of social and cultural capitals in perpetuating inequalities both in prior attainment and access to higher education in its various forms. The importance of ‘knowing the ropes’ is highlighted and the paper ends with a discussion of the implications of the findings of the review for future approaches to policy and research in this field.