Teenagers from the most affluent backgrounds are the least likely of any group to have received a university offer for the first time on record, The Telegraph has found.
The findings came as the race for university places is expected to be one of the most competitive in decades, with Ucas anticipating about 40 per cent of students using its clearing system to get a place on a course.
Chris McGovern, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said that apparent preferential treatment for students from disadvantaged areas was “social engineering”.
“They are trying to cover up the failure of the school system which should be getting people up to the right level to get into university,” he said.
Prof Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment, said: “Universities are being pressured by the government and Office for Students to take into account social factors when admitting students. This infringes university autonomy and is bad for the entrants because they may not be able to keep up.”
Elite universities hand out fewer offers
The Telegraph analysed offer rates for teenagers placed in five groups according to the proportion of young people who enter higher education from that area.
The methodology, known as Polar, is a key tool used by universities to assess whether a candidate is disadvantaged. When the measurement was first introduced in 2005, research showed that in many parts of the UK, low participation areas for young people in higher education were also the areas with the highest measures of socio-economic disadvantage.
Data going back to 2010, when it was fully adopted by Ucas, show that teenagers considered the most advantaged have never before been the least likely to have received a university offer.
This year 73 per cent of students from the most advantaged areas have received a university offer, compared to 75 per cent for applicants from the least advantaged areas. In 2010, the most advantaged quartile of applicants had the best offer rate, at 71.2 per cent, compared to 67.1 per cent for the least advantaged.
Fewer offers have been handed out by elite universities this year after they were forced to expand their intake during the pandemic more than they had planned because of record grade inflation.
However, Ms Marchant said that overall the offer rate had fallen more for students from the most advantaged backgrounds than those from the least advantaged backgrounds.
The research comes amid fears that top universities could be discriminating against private school pupils.
Barnaby Lenon, the chairman of the Independent Schools Council and a former head of Harrow, said that universities should “seek to take applicants with the greatest potential regardless of the type of school they went to”.
He said that grammar schools, as well as private schools, were concerned that “the current operating admissions system could be working against them”.
However, he said it was “reasonable” to give a slightly higher offer rate to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds because they are “significantly less likely to achieve the grades” than those from the most advantaged areas.
Despite having a head start in terms of offer rate, there are fears that the gap in attainment between students from poorer and richer backgrounds, and students from state schools and private schools, will have widened during the pandemic.
‘New era of competitive university admissions’
Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: “The obstacle for disadvantaged students will be getting the A-level grades needed to secure university offers.
“The worry is that disproportionate learning loss suffered during Covid, coupled with the impact of the cost of living crisis and high absence rates at school, will mean many will slip a grade – particularly given that fewer high grades will be awarded this year. This has been a particularly tough time for this cohort.”
Ms Marchant warned that this year will be the start of a new era of more competitive university admissions, with the number of applicants expected to rise from about 700,000 this year to one million in 2026 because of more 18-year-olds in the population and increasing demand from international students.
She warned that the UK could see a squeeze on places for home students in future years as the £9,250 annual fee cap for students in England becomes less affordable for institutions facing sharp cost rises.
Ms Marchant said she had heard anecdotal evidence of some universities already starting to take more international students who pay higher fees on some courses.
The rate of disadvantaged pupils receiving offers should be seen in the context of this being the first summer where universities have also been able to see whether applicants were eligible for free school meals, she added.
Students’ disadvantaged status to be checked
For applications for university courses starting in 2023, students will be asked to identify whether they fit into new categories which could define disadvantage, including whether students are estranged from their parents, have caring responsibilities, or are from Armed Forces families.
Ms Marchant said that “tens of thousands of students” were already responding to those questions.
Despite the challenges of this year’s admissions, she said Ucas expects either a record or near-record level of students getting their first choice university.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “A record number of 18-year-olds are holding a firm offer this year, meaning more applicants are in a prime position to secure a preferred course than ever before.
“Securing a place at university should be about talent and ability, not background, and the whole sector will be working hard on results day so pupils from every walk of life can progress to the next stage of their education.”