Access course students are often discouraged by their own tutors from aiming for a high-ranking university place, a national survey has found.
Those hoping to study law at an old university frequently find they are advised by access course heads to apply instead for humanities or social sciences programmes at new universities.
Even if they ignore this advice they may face indirect discrimination by admission tutors who have had little formal training and who are "often left to make up their own rules", a report on the survey findings says.
Responses to questionnaires returned by 49 law schools in England and Wales and 30 university law admission tutors, together with interviews with 47 students, brought "worrying evidence that students are being strongly directed away from certain courses and institutions, not necessarily on the basis of academic criteria or judgement".
More than a third of access students interviewed said they had been strongly discouraged from applying to the institution they wished to attend. One tutor told a student that, should she get an interview at an old university, she would be "reduced to tears by the interviewers" and "completely ostracised by staff and students", the report says. Another who had applied to Oxford University was told by her tutor that, being from a racial minority and an access course, she would "stand no chance".
The report says the predominant feeling of the students was that those running access courses "had their own particular agendas to fulfil - that is, to boost their success figures. They did this by lowering the ambitions of the students, so guaranteeing that all their students succeeded in getting places".
Another potential problem arose when access courses were linked to a particular university, encouraging access tutors to put pressure on students "not to play the field".
The report comments: "In such cases the access students are clearly not entering a free market for higher education."
Only one of the admissions tutors contacted was following guidelines published by the university to assist in their decision making.
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