Bristol and Edinburgh universities have been "unfairly pilloried" for trying to create fairer admissions systems, according to a leading higher education manager.
Bill Stevely, convenor of Universities Scotland and chairman of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said merit had to be the basis for admission. But this had to be more carefully defined and understood, with an end to talk of dumbing down.
Professor Stevely was speaking at a conference hosted by Universities Scotland and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to bring schools and universities together to discuss access.
He said identifying potential had always been a difficult task for admissions officers, and it was easy simply to take the best qualified applicants. But it was considered "perfectly respectable" to distinguish between comparable applicants on the basis of school-based activities such as taking part in a sports or debating team. Some pupils lacked these opportunities, Professor Stevely said, and he suggested that worthwhile extracurricular activities should also count, such as holding a part-time job or working on community projects.
Professor Stevely predicted "severe tensions" if universities were as successful as the Scottish Executive wanted them to be in widening access while facing a cap on overall numbers. Taking more applicants from one social group would mean taking fewer from others. "To me, that undermines the equity for which I'm working," he said.
Lewis Macdonald, Scotland's deputy minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said: "We remain absolutely clear. We need to see an increase in the proportion of students from the most economically disadvantaged groups gaining entry to higher education, and we want them to succeed when they get there."