THE row over how many private school pupils get a fair deal from universities could damage government efforts to widen access, a leading commentator has warned.
Conor Ryan, a former adviser to David Blunkett, said rising resentment over positive discrimination by universities could scupper other plans to get students from poor families into higher education.
The debate hit the headlines this week after it was revealed that Bristol University had turned down a number of high-flying pupils from the private sector. Edinburgh University also announced it would take state school students with lower A-levels.
Mr Ryan told The TES: "There is a danger that the row over Bristol in particular will make it more difficult for the Government to improve access in other ways."
He said that any feeling in Middle England that positive discrimination was at work "will cause a lot of resentment if the Government tries to introduce top-up fees".
He noted that there were other ways to widen access, including schemes run by top universities in inner city schools, and added: "Ministers need to think carefully through the implications of the whole access programme and how it goes forward."
His comments came after Education Secretary Charles Clarke told a meeting of vice-chancellors that he supported the ambitions of Bristol and Edinburgh.
The Government is to introduce an independent access regulator, dubbed Offtoff, to ensure that universities do enough to attract poor students.
However, on Wednesday Tony Blair told the House of Commons that "people should go to university based on their merit, whatever their class background".
The independent sector has reacted with anger to Bristol's stance. The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference last year pinpointed the university's admissions policy as raising "concerns".
Dr Martin Stephen, chairman-elect of HMC, blamed "inept government interference" for the crisis. He dismissed rumours of an explicit boycott of Bristol but said that parents might be put off.
Dr Stephen said thousands of private school pupils received financial help.
A spokesman for Bristol said the university would not be swayed by "wildly misleading" newspaper reports. He said a high proportion of its entry came from the private sector.
But some state sixth forms are not convinced they would benefit from Bristol and Edinburgh's moves. The head of academic studies in a large FE college said: "We are not confident that the situation has changed that greatly."