The chance of a young person from a well-off background becoming a graduate has grown at a higher rate than that of a child from a more disadvantaged home.
Bright working-class girls have less chance of studying for a degree than they did before the rapid university expansion of the 1980s. Conversely, the chances of a low-ability girl from a wealthy background rose from 5 per cent to 15 per cent.
The findings from the London School of Economics will make comforting reading for strongly middle-class Edinburgh University which has had to defend its move to open up access to more disadvantaged students by widening its entry criteria.
Writing in The TES Scotland two weeks ago, Professor Gordon Kirk, the university's vice-principal, commented that the proportion of students coming from less well-off sections "has hardly changed in more than 40 years and some excellent students with academic potential are being missed".
The LSE's centre for economic performance and the Institute of Education at London University looked at two cohorts, one born in 1958 and the other in 1970. Researchers compared girls' and boys' degree chances according to ability and social background. They found, regardless of gender, that across all ability ranges, more children from middle-class backgrounds had benefited from university expansion.
They looked at the life chances of the brightest children in each group and found that the clever working-class child born in 1958 had a one in four chance of being in a professional job at the age of 33, while a middle-class friend had a three in four chance.
When the team looked at those born in 1970 they found the middle-class child's chances had declined slightly, but so had those of his low-income counterpart.
The chance of a boy of high ability from a high-income family becoming a graduate was 76 per cent among those born in 1970 - up 17 percentage points on 1958. By contrast, 43 per cent of high-ability boys born into working-class homes in 1970 gained a degree, up just eight points.
But the researchers note that career prospects for working-class graduates are just as good as those of their middle-class counterparts.
Leader, page 20