Teenagers born in September are 20 per cent more likely to go to university than youngsters born in August, a study has revealed.
The startling link between a child's month of birth and their chance of going to university is established by research published this week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Hefce charted how many 18 and 19-year-olds entered university from each English parliamentary constituency and council ward between 1994 and 2000 - from the middle of John Major's time at No 10 through Tony Blair's first term.
Sir Howard Newby, Hefce chief executive, said that the study also showed how "entrenched" the divisions between affluent and poor neighbourhoods were.
But, in an unexpected conclusion, the study found that if every child had the same chance of going to university as those born in September, there would be an extra 12,000 undergraduates each year. By the time a student leaves university, the "birth effect" on their academic performance has worn off.
A widening gap in the performance of young men and women through the Nineties was also uncovered. Teenage girls are now far more likely to study for a degree than their male peers.
In 1994, teenage girls were 6 per cent more likely to study for a degree than boys. By 2000, this figure had risen to 18 per cent.
But the keynote of the Hefce research is charting the different trends in different parts of England, with 18 and 19-year-olds in London 50 per cent more likely to go to university than their peers living in the North East.
Some 33 per cent of teenagers in the South East went to university in 2000, but only 26 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber and 24 per cent in the North East.
But even within regions, Hefce found stark differences in participation.
Sheffield boasts a parliamentary constituency that ranks in the top four.
But Sheffield Brightside appears in the bottom four for participation rates.
Hefce found that overall, participation of teenagers in higher education increased from per cent in 1994 to 29 per cent in 2000.
As teenagers represent 70 per cent of each year's intake, the study underlines the scale of the task facing ministers if they are to meet their manifesto pledge of a 50 per cent higher education participation rate among 18 to 30-year-olds by the end of the decade.
Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, said the Hefce research was "by far the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of its kind". He added: "It demonstrates there is still more work to be done to ensure equality of opportunity for those students from low-income groups."
Sir Howard said: "Higher education offers considerable long-term benefits to individuals and also receives substantial amounts of taxpayers' money.
"We have known for a long time that these benefits are not distributed evenly. This report highlights how entrenched the divisions are between advantaged and disadvantaged areas.
"It reveals the extent of the challenge facing... the educational system if we are to make inroads in improving participation rates for those from poorer backgrounds."
He added that the research had also unearthed encouraging findings. "The introduction of tuition fees and the replacement of student grants by loans (in 1998) do not appear to have affected the choices of young people from different social backgrounds.
"For those who make it into HE from disadvantaged backgrounds, the majority complete their courses and are slightly more likely to go on to postgraduate study than other entrants."
But Hannah Essex, vice-president (education) at the National Union of Students said:"The Government can't keep using their 'things can only get better' line to disguise the detrimental impact that their policies have had on higher education and on applications from low-participatory social backgrounds."
Tim Collins, the Shadow Education Secretary, said:"It is clear that children from disadvantaged areas are far more likely to have encountered poor standards in their secondary education. Tackling these must be the top priority for any government looking to improve university access."
He added:"Labour's agenda is based on backbench spite."
Full results of the Hefce report in the Access supplement