Our analysis of the easiest and hardest British universities to get into shows that there is indeed an elite group of institutions whose members are successful at attracting both research funding and the most-qualified students. The same universities have the best student-to-staff ratios, spend the most on libraries and other forms of student support, and award more firsts. It is no wonder that it is these universities whose staff and managers are most likely to see institutional salvation in independence from state control and state funding, and in the ability to charge what they can for teaching and research. But a more interesting story is to be found at the other end of the league. Here, a series of institutions more usually associated with financial crises, shotgun mergers and emergency intervention emerge as persistently attracting the least well-qualified students in A-level terms. Many teach a lot of students who bring with them the all-too-modest postcode premium for students from less prosperous areas.
Even more than the elite institutions, these universities need more resources of people and money to do their jobs properly, and to ensure that they retain at least a toehold in the world of research as well as in teaching. Taking the easiest students and applying huge amounts of effort to turn them into tomorrow's elite is a necessary role for higher education. But it is only one of the functions of a mass university system. In the era of expansion to which UK higher education is rightly committed, the institutions that take less well-qualified students are those that will deliver the increased student numbers. As our survey shows, there is little enthusiasm for positive discrimination to help students from the least advantageous backgrounds to get into university. Perhaps this is because the universities that are likely to grow fastest already realise that they cannot afford to discriminate on the basis of social background and that, in any case, it is their mission not to. But if they are to play their part in the expansion the government wants, both sides must be clear that the new students involved will be expensive to recruit and to teach.