Universities hit back this week at critics of their plans to take more state school pupils at the expense of those from independent schools.
Under instructions from the funding council, universities have devised plans to widen participation that include setting internal targets. Some of these refer to the proportion of students accepted from state schools.
Universities that have a disproportionately high intake from independent schools - mostly members of the research-led Russell Group - are being encouraged to alter the balance. But many of the internal targets still lag behind the benchmarks set by the funding council, which take into account the subject mix and entry qualifications of each institution.
The University of Birmingham, however, has exceeded its target of 82 per cent of admissions to come from state-school pupils by 2004. It is ahead of both the most recent figure - 76 per cent - and the 80 per cent benchmark.
Kevin Whitston, head of the widening participation unit at the university, said: "The benchmark is a moving target - as access improves, the benchmark will shift. I think it's right to be in front of the benchmark - it demonstrates the university's commitment to widening participation."
The universities of Leeds and Exeter were also exposed as having internal targets that were more demanding than their benchmarks. Both said it was because the benchmarks were shifting.
Universities are working on improving their admissions procedure to widen participation by identifying promising candidates who might have underperformed in exams or who have non-traditional qualifications.
The project, called Fair Enough? and run by Universities UK, aims to identify the attributes of a successful student using techniques employed in the job market. The objective is to make the admissions process more objective and transparent.
Tony Bruce, policy director of UUK, said: "Universities are keen to ensure that all students who can benefit from higher education are able to do so, irrespective of their background. They are in the business of identifying potential, and to do this universities are applying increasingly sophisticated admissions criteria.
He said that Fair Enough? would "equip admissions departments with different tools to approach their selection and recruitment".
He added: "It is not attempting to replace A-levels as admissions criteria but to complement them."
The results of the project will be published early next year.
* Exam boards will send the results of the regrading of A levels to schools and colleges for release on Tuesday, with a request for them to be forwarded to any affected candidates.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service will have the corrected data and will pass it on to higher education institutions. But given that courses are full and term has started, it is unlikely that students will be placed this year.
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