Students from state schools do better at the old universities than their independent counterparts. That is the finding of a study of all full-time students in all subjects at the old universities between 1973 and 1992, made by a team led by Bob McNabb of the University of Cardiff business school.
The study compared students of the same sex, age, A-level grades and family background attending universities grouped by size and their teaching and research performance. When these factors were taken into account it found that students who attended an independent school are a fifth less likely to graduate with a first than students who went to a comprehensive.
"The implication is that universities should lower the entrance requirement for pupils from state schools," said Alan Manning of the London School of Economics. He hopes to conduct a similar study and, if it replicated the results, "I would lobby the London School of Economics to take into account a student's educational background".
Some Oxbridge colleges are already more sympathetic towards students from the state sector who narrowly fail to make the grade than they are towards students from independent schools. "This is a very pertinent finding that people should keep in mind during the admissions process," said Tim Jenkinson, senior tutor at Keble College, Oxford.
While the college does not practise positive discrimination, it is more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to students from the state sector. "The safer option often seems to take the more polished person from the independent school. But final degree results show that perhaps this should not be the case," he added.
This view is supported by Bob Wallach, senior tutor at King's College, Cambridge. More than 80 per cent of college applicants are from the state sector and a similar percentage gain places. "We find that our students' results tend to improve over the three years relative to their peers at other colleges," said Dr Wallach. Since about half the students at the University of Cambridge come from independent schools, this supports the finding that state school pupils do better.
The study was intended to examine the difference in academic achievement between the sexes. It found that although women performed better on average than men, men are more likely to get a first-class degree. Students from comprehensive schools, mature students and those with no formal academic qualifications are also more likely to perform better than other groups of students.
Dr McNabb said: "Initially I expected students from independent schools would do better. But then I thought that independent schools would probably get their kids better grades for the same level of ability. It is harder for kids from comprehensive schools."
Staff at Trinity College, Cambridge, which this year came top of the Tompkins league table of degree results, expressed amazement at the finding. The college was unwilling to reveal the proportion of students it admits from state schools.
Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, Oxford said that she was interested in the factors influencing student attainment, in particular the difference between the sexes.
About 55 per cent of students who went to university between 1973 and 1992 came from comprehensive schools, while a quarter attended independent schools. Others came from grammar schools, sixth-form colleges and overseas.