Randomly allocating top A-level students university places would be a fairer way of selecting people for degree courses, a new report suggests.
The radical measure would give pupils an equal chance of attending a leading institution, according to a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).
Russell Group: New schemes to get poorer students into Oxford
The report also says that, at the current rate of progress, it would take a century for there to be equal numbers of the least advantaged students and the most advantaged at highly selective universities.
The study describes current progress to improve access to England’s elite universities as “glacially slow”, and the report’s authors have called for a simpler and more transparent admissions system.
Data published by the Office for Students, the universities regulator, in September showed that in 2017-18 English higher education providers recruited twice as many students from the most advantaged backgrounds as from the least advantaged.
This increased to around five times as many among the nation's most selective institutions.
The OfS has set targets including an aim to eliminate gaps in entry rates at the most selective universities between the most and least represented groups.
The HEPI paper estimates that it would take 96 years to get the predicted participation rate in 2030 for 18- to 30-year-olds from the least advantaged areas to the participation rate in 2017-18 for students in the same age group who are from the most advantaged areas.
Widening access to university
Post-qualification applications – whereby students would apply for courses after getting their exam grades – would allow more radical solutions to this issue, such as random allocation of places, the report says.
"Universities could use random allocation of places for students over a certain threshold of A-level grades," the paper says.
"This is the fairest way of selecting equally qualified candidates for degree courses. Lotteries have been used widely in education. You might compensate losers in the lottery – such as by guaranteeing a place at another institution."
It adds: "The benefit of these schemes is their simplicity. Admissions tutors have amassed a battery of criteria designed to distinguish between thousands of equally well-qualified applicants: personal statements; teacher recommendations; predicted exam grades; essays; university admissions tests; interviews; and much more.
"But how much of this data adds to predicting which candidates are best suited for degree courses? And how much does the complexity alienate potentially excellent applicants?"
The paper also proposes that universities in England produce two published offers for degree courses – a standard entry requirement, such as three A grades at A level, and a minimum entry requirement, up to three grades lower, such as BBB.
The authors calculate that the number of places available at highly selective universities would need to double over the next 20 years to ensure all young people have the same participation rates as the most advantaged students.
If the number of degree places was kept at the current level, then the number of places going to the most advantaged students would need to be cut by as much as 10,000.
Lee Elliot Major, a professor in social mobility at the University of Exeter and the report's lead author, said: "Current progress on fairer access to our most selective universities is glacially slow.
"The time has come for a simpler, more transparent, consistent and honest system of university admissions, recognising that A-level grades and our system of predicted grades, are no longer the gold standard of entry."
Nick Hillman, of HEPI, said: "Higher education transforms people's lives. Since the removal of student number controls, it has been easier than ever before for young people with the potential and desire to go to find a place.
"Yet access remains very unequal, especially at more selective universities. People with disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to attend our oldest, most famous and most prestigious universities and, while trends are moving in the right direction, progress has been very slow."
Sarah Stevens, director of policy at the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading institutions, said: "Contextual admissions are an important part of efforts by Russell Group universities to attract and support disadvantaged and under-represented students. They help universities to identify candidates with the most talent, ability and potential to excel on their courses, whatever their social or educational background.
"However, students accepted with much lower grades will need significant academic and pastoral support in order to thrive, and universities have a responsibility to ensure every student beginning a demanding course has the opportunity to succeed."
Russell Hobby, chief executive of the charity Teach First, said: “We know that a degree can be the first step into many careers and opportunities.
“So it makes for dismal reading that it will take a century to meet targets to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into top universities.
“Eliminating that gap requires sustained attention from government, universities and schools. Most urgently we need more brilliant teachers in disadvantaged areas to unlock the potential in all children so they can thrive in whatever path they choose.
“That’s why we need to increase school funding and introduce pay incentives to encourage more quality teachers to work where they’re needed most. Only on this foundation can we build a fair education for all.”