The meaning of merit will play an essential role in the proposals for a fair university admissions system put forward by the government task force headed by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University.
The task force, which is due to produce its first report next week, remains undecided as to whether more emphasis should be placed on achievement or potential. The report will put forward proposals for a fair university admissions system for consultation but will not explicitly back any of them.
Ideas are expected to range from more rigorous use of existing systems, such as divulging pupils' exam marks rather than grades, to introducing new ones, such as scholastic aptitude tests. Other possibilities include the US practice of admitting a set ratio - say, the top 10 per cent - of a school year by class placing.
A final report recommending best practice will be published next year. Once best practice has been identified, universities will be expected to demonstrate that they take fair access seriously. They will be allowed to charge variable fees from 2006 only if they have an access agreement approved by the Office of Fair Access.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said individual universities would be expected to use their tuition-fee income to boost applications by offering bursaries. The cost of retaining students from poorer backgrounds would be met by the funding councils.