Bristol University this week hit back at complaints that it was discriminating against private-school students, saying it was "proud" of the controversial access drive that has seen its state-school intake rise by a fifth in four years.
Bristol told The THES that it had increased participation by state-school students from 49.3 per cent in 1998 to 60 per cent today. Spokesman Barry Taylor said the university still took 39 per cent of students from the private sector. He said it hoped to reduce this figure still further to more clearly reflect society, where private-school pupils make up just 7 per cent of the population.
The university is at the centre of a media furore over its rejection last year of Rudi Singh, a star pupil from a private school. The 19-year-old from King Edward's school in Birmingham, who went to Cambridge University instead, gained 11 A-stars at GCSE and five As at A level.
The university pointed out that King Edward's had a tremendous success rate at Bristol. "In 2002, the year that Rudi Singh applied, we had 45 applications from King Edward's students, and we made offers to 31 of them. That's a 70 per cent success rate."
But private-school heads spoke out against Bristol and other universities as a string of unsuccessful candidates from this year's application round emerged this week. The heads are unhappy with Bristol's access initiative, introduced in 1998, under which state-school students may be selected ahead of better qualified private-school students.
A spokesman for the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference said there was wide concern that Bristol's policies could be discriminatory. The HMC is surveying its members to get a "dipstick" impression of how admissions went this year and will publish the results next week.
Bristol is anticipating a legal challenge to its policies. The HMC spokesman said it was "too early" to talk about court action, but added:
"That's not to say there will not be a challenge. This is the independent sector and people act independently and there may be someone already contemplating it." He said there "might well be a human rights case to answer".
Mr Taylor said: "We are proud of the effect of our widening participation policies. They have nothing whatsoever to do with social engineering, but everything to do with identifying academic potential wherever it may be."
In 2003, Bristol had more than 1,500 applications for 47 places on its English courses, for example. Of those, 1,300 potentially met the minimum-entry standards of two As and a B at A level and more than 500 were predicted perfect A-level scores.
Bristol pro vice-chancellor Patricia Broadfoot said: "Our business is to pick up people who are best going to profit from their time here - that does not necessarily mean those with the best A-level results. Research shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have to be more determined, more committed and more self-reliant to do well at A level than more privileged students. The personal statements on application forms are very revealing - some go through what schools think will impress, but we are looking for something zingy and original."
Education secretary Charles Clarke declined to comment on the policies of individual universities at a Universities UK conference sponsored by The THES this week. But he said: "There has been a historic failure of the university system to expand in a fair way across people from all backgrounds."
Prime minister Tony Blair insisted in the House of Commons this week that it would be wrong for universities to offer people places on any basis other than merit, whatever their background.