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On the map - University access - Meagre pickings for pupils on free meals

Access to top universities among disadvantaged pupils was a hot topic even before the publication of the Browne review - originally commissioned by the previous Labour government - last autumn that sanctioned an increase in tuition fees for undergraduates.

A recent report by the authoritative Sutton Trust produced figures for the percentage of students entering different universities who had qualified for free school meals (FSM) over the three-year period 2005-08. Included in the report was a table of the proportion of pupils entitled to FSM at what were described as "highly selective universities".

Our graphic shows the FSM figures for the top 10 English universities, based on Times Higher Education's university rankings.

Compared with some urban universities that were once polytechnics, where the proportion of FSM undergraduates tops 20 per cent, even King's College London, at the head of this list with 5.3 per cent of those enrolled having been on FSMs, still has only a small proportion of its intake from less well-off backgrounds.

For Oxford and Cambridge, with less than 1 per cent each of FSM pupils, the percentage is trivial. What is interesting is that London institutions fill four of the top five places in the list, albeit that two of the institutions do not offer a full range of undergraduate courses.

The rest of the list contains a mixture of 1960s "ferro-concrete" universities in York and Sussex, an older long-established institution in Durham, and Bristol as the sole representative of the "civic" universities.

In time, perhaps the pupil premium will help to compensate for parents' differential purchasing power, but we should be wary of these statistics. For in many parts of the country, more A-level students study in FE or sixth-form colleges, where they may not always be eligible for FSM, and so might not count towards the totals in the table.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education

PERCENTAGE OF UNIVERSITY STUDENTS WHO WERE ON FREE SCHOOL MEALS (2005-08)

Durham 1.0

York 1.2

Cambridge 0.8

UCL 3.2

LSE 4.0

King's College 5.3

Sussex 2.4

Imperial College 2.9

Oxford 0.8

Bristol 0.9.

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