Researchers from Durham University examined application data from 49,000 students applying to Russell Group universities from 1996 to 2006 to compare the success rates of different groups of applicants.
The study, which was presented to a Higher Education Academy conference in Manchester on 26 March, also found that state school pupils were less likely to get places than pupils from independent schools.
“The headline conclusion of the analysis is that access to Russell Group universities is far from ‘fair’,” said the study’s lead author Vikki Boliver, from Durham University’s School of Applied Social Sciences.
State school pupils “need to be better qualified than their private school counterparts on average by as much as two A-level grades before they are as likely to apply to Russell Group universities”, the study argued.
“And when those from state schools do apply to Russell Group universities they seem to need to be better qualified than their private school counterparts on average by as much as one grade at A level before they are as likely to receive offers of admission,” it adds.
However, Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said the problems raised reflected a lack of advice from some schools over their choice of A levels, which were not always the required subjects for an applicant’s desired degree course.
“Sadly many good students are simply not getting the right advice and guidance on which advanced-level subjects will qualify them for their chosen course,” said Dr Piatt.
“Neither we nor the researchers can control for individual students making poor A-level choices which lead them to fail to meet entry requirements.
“Many good students simply haven’t done the subjects needed for entry - universities need students not only to have good grades, but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for.”
For black and Asian applicants, the study says the barrier appeared to be in the admissions process.
They were confident enough to apply to Russell Group universities, but were less likely to be offered places than similarly qualified white students –
Dr Boliver said there was a need to look “more deeply” into what was happening.
“The findings of this study do suggest that the admissions policies and practices of Russell Group universities unfairly disadvantage applicants from state schools and from certain ethnic minority backgrounds,” she said.
“I would urge all Russell Group universities to scrutinise their admissions policies and practices carefully for possible sources of bias.”