‘Top universities should make lower offers to worse-off students’

Giving pupils from poorer backgrounds a “two-grade break” could lead to 50 per cent more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds being admitted to top universities, a major think-tank report says.

Giving pupils from poorer backgrounds a “two-grade break” could lead to 50 per cent more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds being admitted to top universities, a major think-tank report says.

The Sutton Trust’s research, released today, examined the background of pupils from such backgrounds at 30 of the most selective universities in the UK, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Strathclyde.

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It revealed wide variations in admittance criteria and said applicants’ social background must be a factor in admissions.

It said lowering university offers by two grades – so such pupils needed to get BBC instead of ABB in their A levels, for example – could result in the 50 per cent increase.

While a majority of institutions said they looked at data such as the level of free school meals when deciding which pupils to admit, the report found different indicators were being used in different ways, with many universities leaving decisions to the ­discretion of individual departments.

Researchers said this meant potentially eligible students – often those with fewer networks and least access to information – may be unaware they could benefit.

The report also found as many as one in five advantaged students entering these highly selective universities with grades at or below BBC.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said applicants’ background must be an admissions factor.

“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 – meanings the social background of a university applicant is taken into account in the admissions process.

“At top American universities like 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.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Instead of lots of separate tweaks from different universities, which is likely to further confuse applicants, we need a radical overhaul of the system.

“We believe that getting pupils to apply to university after they get their results would be one massive step in the right direction.”