The universities likely to benefit from unlimited recruitment of high-achieving students are the lowest performers on widening participation, official data suggest, prompting claims that the policy will result in "more resources for the most socially exclusive universities".
The institutions with the highest proportions of AAB students have been described as an English "Ivy League" in the press following the recent White Paper.
Unlike most universities, they will be largely protected from the government's plan to deduct 8 per cent of core student places - which excludes places taken by students with A-level grades of AAB or better - to auction to cheaper providers.
David Allen, registrar and deputy chief executive at the University of Exeter, told staff at a recent presentation that ranking among the leading AAB institutions makes Exeter "one of the best positioned in the whole sector". It is an advantage "you couldn't pay for", making the institution a globally recognised "top brand", he said.
But Higher Education Statistics Agency data show that universities in the AAB elite are strongly represented among the institutions with the fewest students from state schools, from less wealthy socio-economic classes and from low-participation neighbourhoods (Hesa's three widening participation indicators).
Of the 10 universities with the highest proportions of AAB students, six are in the bottom 10 of English institutions on all three widening participation indicators (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Bristol, University College London and Exeter).
Another two leading AAB institutions (Durham and Bath) feature in the bottom 10 on two widening participation indicators, and the remaining two (the London School of Economics and Warwick) were in the bottom 10 in one.
Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of newer universities, said the "misguided AAB policy will result in more resources for the most socially exclusive universities.
"By favouring measures of input quality over measures of added value, the government is damaging widening participation, which it claims to favour."
Many also observe that AAB students, who are likely to be fought over by universities offering scholarships, tend to be from more advantaged social groups.
Claire Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck, University of London and the Institute of Education, said that if merit-based scholarships were used to attract AAB students, "the US data show that is to the advantage of high-income students" and would be "at the expense of bursaries and scholarships for low-income students".
Exeter said it was "committed to widening participation" and meeting targets in its access agreement. However, a spokeswoman added: "The continuing use of contextual data is key to our widening participation aims, but it is threatened by the proposals put forward in the White Paper to allow universities to take on unlimited numbers of AAB+ (or equivalent) students."
She said Exeter "would like government to allow institutions to offer below AAB" for students with potential but not top grades.
Wendy Piatt, Russell Group director-general, said that "universities with high demand for courses from highly qualified students should be allowed to expand", and that Russell Group institutions were "investing millions" in widening access.
On contextual data, Dr Piatt said that "any decisions about admissions must...respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.
"Even within the new student number arrangements, institutions will have considerable flexibility over how to identify the applicants with the most potential."
Kenton Lewis, a steering group member for the Bridge Group, which promotes social mobility through higher education, said leading universities "already have difficulty in recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds".
He added: "This (AAB) proposal is likely to perpetuate this predicament and construct yet another unwarranted hurdle for prospective students. This will encourage further stratification of the higher education sector in parallel to the US...leading to even lower levels of social mobility."
Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said that the coalition government and the last Labour administration had pursued a "covert policy of creating an Ivy League", first through research funding policy and now through teaching support, and that AAB was a bid to "placate the Russell Group".