Elite universities have called for better access to secondary school student data, in order to reduce the inequality gap between the least advantaged pupils and their peers going on to higher education.
In a report, Pathways to Potential, published by the Russell Group today, Britain's most selective universities call for greater access to the National Pupil Database to ensure that higher proportions of disadvantaged students go on to higher education.
But school leaders say the proposal rings alarm bells and is "a sledgehammer to crack a nut".
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The report says: "Work the OfS [Office for Students] and Ucas are doing to improve access to existing pupil-level datasets, including data on students eligible for free school meals, which is not currently available to universities, is particularly welcome, especially at the point where they are looking to support a disadvantaged applicant with a contextual offer.
Getting more disadvantaged students into university
"This data should be provided urgently to ensure these deprived young people do not miss out."
While the report acknowledges that pupil data needs to be protected, it says that having access to National Pupil Database and HMRC data would allow elite universities to engage in "more precise educational tracking of students", including of pupils who are disadvantaged but ineligible for free school meals.
The group, which comprises 24 self-selecting, higher-tariff universities, said the government should make regional data systems more accessible, so that universities "can identify, target and track prospective applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds".
"The creation of a new household income dataset would enable universities to ensure they are reaching the most disadvantaged students beyond those eligible for free school meals," the report adds.
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This proposal does ring alarm bells because it appears to involve sharing sensitive personal information.
"It seems like a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as there must be simpler ways to improve access to high-ranking universities for disadvantaged students.”
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: "We support the Russell Group’s aim for universities to be able to access more individualised data so they can identify those students who are most critically disadvantaged, and will continue to work with Ucas and the Department for Education towards achieving this, whilst ensuring the protection of student data.
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Educational inequality undermines the pipeline of talent into the UK’s world-class universities when we should be unleashing opportunities to anyone with the drive and determination to access higher education, regardless of their circumstances.
“Russell Group universities will continue to do their part but breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone."