Proof that Bristol University systematically favours candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds over privileged pupils has been uncovered by The Times Higher .
Admissions tutors have been told to apply two filters to ensure that the system is weighted in favour of bright but disadvantaged pupils, according to documents released by the university under the Freedom of Information Act.
There was an outcry in 2002 when public schools claimed that Bristol discriminated against their pupils. At the time Bristol sought to clarify its policy, with limited success.
The Times Higher requested details of the university's admissions policy relating to applications made for entry in 2002.
Documents show that admissions tutors were told they should offer a place to a candidate from a disadvantaged educational background ahead of an otherwise similar candidate from a privileged educational background.
They were told to apply a second filter by making a lower offer to a candidate from the disadvantaged educational background than to someone from a more privileged educational background.
The policy states: "Where there is a choice between candidates of broadly similar potential, admissions tutors should take account of the university's policy in support of the broadening of access in deciding which candidates should receive offers and in determining the level at which offers should be made."
Eric Thomas, the vice-chancellor, said: "Admissions tutors, if they have a very substantial number of applications and have a limited number of places, may consider it fairer to give an offer to someone performing well in a educationally disadvantaged background than to someone with a more enriched educational background. There are both types of background in both sectors (state and independent schools).
"It is a broad principle: one of the things we take into account is educational background. The state-independent school division is not relevant."
He said that in certain circumstances, the university would make an "offer one or two grades lower in one or two subjects at A level than the standard offer".
The policy, designed to create a more socially diverse student body, was condemned by independent school heads represented by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.
Philip Evans, chair of the HMC's subcommittee on university admissions and headmaster of Bedford School, said: "Universities are correct in choosing students as individuals on merit only, judged using a combination of all the means at their disposal. What they should not do is engage in social engineering with regard to the make-up of the student body."
Priscilla Chadwick, chair of the HMC and principal of Berkhamsted Collegiate School, said: "Admissions tutors want to take the best students, and that takes us to the question of what is merit? It is a balance between academic attainment and academic potential. But someone with four A grades at A level may well have more academic potential (than is revealed by those grades), just as someone with lower grades may have more academic potential."
Bristol has offered places to students from failing schools with lower entry qualifications than their better-educated peers since the mid-1990s, the documents show.
In 1998, for example, 17 alternative-admissions students were admitted to the department of law. Eight of these were offered lower entry grades; a further six were made the standard offer of grades ABB at A level and three were made unconditional offers.
Earlier monitoring of the performance of disadvantaged law students show that they gained good degrees despite starting with lower entry qualifications.
Of the 22 alternative-admissions students who graduated from the law department in 1994 and 1995, six gained an upper-second class degree, 13 a lower-second, two a third-class degree and one a pass degree.