Bristol University has, frankly, a bit of a reputation as a place for "poshos". So when it came under virulent attack for its admissions policies, one might have supposed it was being slated for keeping poor children out.
On the contrary. Bristol, a prime favourite with private school pupils, stands accused of wantonly rejecting many of the sector's top candidates as part of a programme of "social engineering", and has prompted a powerful lobby of public schools to say they will no longer recommend their pupils apply there.
The debate was heightened by reports that a series of exceptional candidates, with strings of A*s at GCSE and As at AS-level, had been turned away by departments such as history and economics for no apparent reason.
Some of these had gone on to win places at Cambridge, reportedly prompting Education Secretary Charles Clarke to say of one candidate that "his life has not been utterly blighted".
Andrew Grant, headteacher of St Alban's school, where Bristol turned down all six economics applicants, spells out the concerns. Some departments with vast oversupply are, he says, having benchmarks for independent-school intake "screwed down" because other departments, such as classics and maths, do not get enough well-qualified applicants from the state sector to hit their targets. History, economics and law are causing the most concern.
Barry Taylor, Bristol's spokesman, rejects this view, saying that while it is self-evident that classics' intake will be heavily weighted towards the private schools which, unlike most state schools, teach Latin and Greek, in general the approach to widening participation is "positive, not negative - our only bias is towards ability". But Bristol does sometimes make slightly lower-than-normal offers to outstanding candidates from low-achieving schools.
Bristol points out that in some subjects it would be very easy to find exceptional students who had been turned away, simply through force of numbers. In English, for example, the university has 47 places available for 2003 entry - and received 1,500 applicants. Of those, 1,300 were expected to achieve the minimum requirement of AAB, and 500 were predicted AAA. Therefore it is inevitable that many high-fliers will miss out.
The independent schools, however, question on what basis Bristol selects the lucky 47, given that it does not interview, and say they will only be satisfied when there is more transparency in the procedure.
Bristol admits that not every English acceptance will go to AAA candidates - exceptional pupils from very poor schools may be admitted with AAB. It feels such a policy is justified because, Mr Taylor says, "we are currently missing out on some of the talent that exists in some parts of society".
Independent schools argue that, in the absence of detailed methods of discovering an individual's aptitude and circumstances, such as that provided by an Oxbridge interview, a university should judge a candidate by their A-level achievements.
However, some research suggests that this approach could be doing state school pupils a disservice. Academics at Warwick University found that, given identical A-level results, state entrants tend to get better degrees than those from private schools. It would be possible to argue a case, on that basis, for fee-paying pupils being set a higher A-level target.
But does the situation merit these policies - and how much impact are they having on independent schools? The private sector is, statistically, over-represented at the top institutions - and to such an extent that controversial policies like those of Bristol can have, at best, a marginal effect. Pupils from independent schools achieve a disproportionately high number of top A-level grades (see table), and therefore one might expect them to be strongly represented at the best universities.
Overall, 7 per cent of children attend private schools, but this figure rises sharply to 15 per cent in the sixth form because far more fee-paying pupils stay on to the age of 18. However, the most recent Department for Education and Skills statistics show that of pupils achieving an A-level points score of 30 or more - that is to say, three As or better - 36 per cent came from the independent sector.
But even taking this striking statistic into account, privately educated students are still hugely over-represented at elite institutions. At Oxford and Cambridge, where nine out of 10 students arrive with three As, 47 per cent come from private schools (see table). Bristol, where the average student has two As and a B, takes 40 per cent from private schools.
There are many universities where independent schools are under-represented, in that the intake is more than 85 per cent from state schools. Many are "recruitment" universities - usually ex-polytechnics, some of which will take anyone who meets the minimum criteria.
But this tends to be because private school pupils simply have no need to apply to less prestigious institutions. The table shows that nearly 70 per cent achieve 20 A-level points or more - equating to BCC or better, enough to get into plenty of "old" universities. The equivalent figure across all establishments is only 42 per cent. Meanwhile, only 7 per cent of private pupils get fewer than 10 points, or less than DDE, while this score rises to more than a fifth of pupils countrywide.
And often where private school pupils apply to a particular university in droves, they are disproportionately successful at getting through the admissions process. Perhaps the greatest irony in the furore surrounding Bristol is the fact that while just under 30 per cent of its applicants are from independent schools, about 40 per cent of its intake is from the sector.
Bristol cannot win. Its efforts to broaden its intake have met with heavy criticism. But looked at from another perspective, it could be seen as failing to admit a broad range of students.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England sets "benchmarks" for what, according to its assessment, would be a fair state intake for each university. Bristol is still nowhere near the 74 per cent benchmark for its group and it looks unlikely to achieve the more modest figure of 69 per cent that it has set itself for 20045. It could just as easily be facing a campaign from irate state school heads claiming their pupils are not getting a fair shot.
HEFCE benchmarks give a "fair" stateprivate balance based on characteristics such as subjects offered and typical age of applicants. For example, a university with a large classics department would be expected to have more students from private school backgrounds, while one with many mature applicants would have more state school entrants. As can be seen from the table, some top institutions are way off the benchmark.
Under government plans the benchmarks are due to be replaced by more "sensitive" measures, including parental experience of higher education and the exam results of the school the student comes from. Private schools say that while they are pleased that the crude stateprivate divide is being removed, the overall effect on standards will be disastrous because there will be no incentive for schools to improve.
But whatever measure is used, independent school pupils still get a good deal. They get good A-levels and go on to the best universities - and whatever the merits of measures being taken to boost the chances of state sector entrants, these advantages look set to remain.
Peter Lampl, 23