Proposals unveiled this week to create a fairer and more transparent university admissions system will have limited impact on efforts to widen access, academic leaders have warned.
The long-awaited recommendations from the admissions taskforce, led by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, suggest that universities should make lower-grade offers to state pupils who show academic potential - but only on a case-by-case basis. Other proposals include a single American-style aptitude test to be taken alongside A levels and an admissions system based on A-level results rather than on predicted grades.
The proposals were greeted with a guarded response from the academic sector. Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, stressed that institutions were committed to ensuring fair access, but added: "The key need is to increase applications, and universities alone cannot make this happen - all stakeholders in education have a role to play."
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said:
"Bringing in a lot of bureaucracy, regulation and extra testing to balance things up at 18 - which is what the Schwartz report does - will merely complicate admissions and will not redress all the shortcomings of the secondary system, which is where reform is really needed. Schwartz will only paper over the cracks."
Questions have also been raised about how the proposals will be implemented by universities. The proposed Office for Fair Access will be able to prevent universities from charging top-up fees unless they have access agreements guaranteeing that poor students receive bursaries. But the adoption of the Schwartz principles is voluntary.
Professor Schwartz said: "These are recommendations and suggestions - not rules and requirements. For example, there is no legal obligation for any institution to provide feedback to an unsuccessful student. But you can understand how such feedback might help transparency. Our recommendation doesn't compel anyone to do it - we leave it to the university."
He suggested that universities might wish to include voluntarily a section on admissions within their access agreement with Offa. However, a UUK spokesperson argued that Offa should focus not on admissions but on widening the pool of applicants.
Meanwhile, Matthew Andrews, head of undergraduate admissions at Durham University who is helping to formulate the Admissions Practitioners'
Group's response to Schwartz, was concerned about the cost of implementing the proposals. "Institutions work very hard to ensure fair access and transparency and to ensure that they treat students as individuals and with respect.
"There is a cost to all these recommendations and these costs will have to be met from somewhere," he said.
Welcoming the report, Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, stressed that universities should be in charge of their own admissions policies.
The Schwartz proposals were published at the same time as a study that suggests that wealth, not ability, is increasingly the biggest factor in predicting children's educational attainment.
The research reveals that it was affluent youngsters - irrespective of academic talent - who benefited most from the expansion of the education system up until the 1980s. While the study does not cover university expansion over more recent years, the authors suspect the findings still apply to today's graduates.
Fernando Galindo-Rueda and Anna Vignoles of the London School of Economics analysed data from 35,000 students in two British cohort studies.
The study, presented at the Royal Economics Society conference this week, says: "The rapid expansion of the education system in Britain since the 1960s has disproportionately benefited children from richer families. It is not the most able but rather the most advantaged students who have gained the most from policies to expand educational opportunities."
The study reveals that middle-ability students from low-income households improved their chances of reaching higher education by 5 per cent during the 1970s and 1980s. By contrast, 12 per cent more middle-ability students from high-income families were able to get a degree during the same time frame.