Admissions tutors who consider themselves guardians of the quality of higher education are blocking access to university for people from under-represented groups, a conference will hear next week.
Maggie Woodrow, head of the European Access Network at the University of Westminster, will tell delegates at the annual admissions officers conference, held by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, to change their attitudes.
"The question is: how can we change the system in which selectivity and privilege have become concealed in labels of quality?" Ms Woodrow asked.
"I am not suggesting that anyone is against widening participation but that some staff see themselves as the guardians of the quality of British higher education. Widening participation should be seen as part of that excellence," she added.
"We must expect that changes in admissions policies will be resisted. We are talking about access to affluence and access to enhanced status in life... We have a class-ridden higher education system and we need to recognise that."
Ms Woodrow said that admissions staff take one of three approaches towards students from under-represented groups. Some ask them to meet the same standards as more privileged candidates. Others admit a limited number of students by bending rather than changing their admissions policy.
"The third group do not apply equal criteria or make special cases. They change the rules so that equality of opportunity becomes systemic to admissions policy," Ms Woodrow said.
Many institutions believe they have fair admissions strategies but few monitor the outcomes of their strategies, that is the numbers of students from under-represented groups who are offered and accept a place. "Strategies must be followed up to see how successful they have been," Ms Woodrow said.
"There needs to be a change of attitude. It needs an institution-wide approach and it has got to come from the top. The best way of changing attitudes is for staff to understand and engage in their local communities, further education colleges and schools," she added.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has commissioned Ms Woodrow to update her 1998 report, From elitism to inclusion. The work will be published next year.