Lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils by two grades could lead to a 50 per cent rise in the number admitted to top institutions, research suggests.
A report, published by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, says dropping the entry requirements to the most selective universities by two A-level grades could, each year, benefit around 750 pupils receiving free school meals.
The study – which looked at the use of "contextual admissions" at 30 of the UK's most selective universities – found little difference in the A-level grades with which students from different backgrounds entered university.
"Contextual admissions" is when an institution takes into account a potential student's background, such as the school they attended, or whether they were eligible for free school meals, when deciding who to make offers to.
The study, led by academics at the universities of Durham and Warwick, concluded that "there remains significant scope for greater use of contextual data amongst selective universities in the UK."
Lack of information
Researchers found that while many highly selective universities use contextual data, they often use it in different ways, with many leaving the decision on whether to use this information – and how – down to individual departments.
Just four indicated that all contextually eligible applicants would be guaranteed a reduced grade offer, the report found – and overall there was a lack of information available to applicants about the types of data used.
The report says: "While concerns have been expressed that it risks 'setting students up to fail' by admitting them with lower grades, our analysis finds little evidence that leading universities that appear to practise greater contextualisation see significantly higher dropout rates, lower degree completion rates, or lower degree class results than universities where the use of contextualisation appears to be lower."
The Sutton Trust is calling on universities to make greater use of contextual admissions – including admitting poorer students with lower grades.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: "Getting a degree from a top university is one of the surest routes to a good job. However, young people from low and moderate income homes are substantially under-represented at these universities. We need a radical change to shift this.
"A central element when applying to leading universities must be to use contextual admissions. By contextual admissions, we mean that the social background of a university applicant is taken into account in the admissions process.
“At Harvard and Yale, giving low- and moderate-income students a break is the norm. There is no reason why our leading universities should not do the same.”
'Make a significant difference'
Report author Dr Claire Crawford, of Warwick University, said: "Despite a substantial increase in the numbers of universities that report taking account of students' backgrounds when making application decisions, it is amazing how little difference there is between the average grades of young people from rich and poor backgrounds who are admitted to selective universities.
"While the relatively small numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who secure the highest A-level grades remains the biggest barrier to widening access to elite institutions, our analysis shows that more widespread and transparent use of contextual data could make a significant difference."
Sarah Stevens, of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, said: "For many years Russell Group universities have used contextualised admissions and data, and have developed foundation courses to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in accessing higher education.
"This is part of our wider commitment to ensuring students with the potential and determination to succeed at a leading university have the opportunity to do so, whatever their background or circumstances."