New universities are now in direct competition with traditional counterparts over students with top entry grades, a study reveals.
Researchers working on the Futuretrack survey, which is tracking students as they progress through higher education, have devised a new method of classifying universities that rejects the traditional reliance on mission groups.
The system uses entry grades and is based on an analysis of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff points and data from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit's Futuretrack database.
The result is that four post-1992 universities are among those demanding high grades or "entry tariffs". Oxford Brookes, Northumbria, Glasgow Caledonian and The Robert Gordon universities all sit in the "high-tariff" bracket, as does Queen Margaret University, which gained university status two years ago. They have overtaken four "old" universities, Bradford, Bangor, Lampeter and Salford, which sit among many post-92s in the "medium-tariff" grouping.
Jane Artess, director of research at Hecsu, said the research contradicted the popular view that old universities recruit all the exceptional candidates. "This simply isn't the case. This may be due to attempts by institutions to widen participation, but it is also likely that students may be getting more discerning about what kind of course will suit them," she said.
Oxford Brookes University said that some of its courses, such as architecture, now ask for AAB A-level grades. Northumbria University's average tariff has risen from 205 Ucas points in 2003 to 7 points in 2010 - a jump from the equivalent of a grade C and two Ds at A level to two Bs and a C.
Kate Purcell, who led the research at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, said the new classification system revealed how the sector had changed over time.
"The old 'class structure' of universities has been evolving, albeit slowly," she said.
A paper prepared by her team for Hecsu argues that there is "a public and professional need for a more precise taxonomy of universities". "The tariff points required ... are generally indicative of the comparative status of the institutions and the competition to enter them," it adds.
Jeff Lucas, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford, said his institution had a strategic plan to widen participation, including foundation degrees and foundation years. He said that the university's entry tariffs had risen from 243 Ucas points in 2003-04 to 262 points in 2008-09.