Universities may be discriminating against state school pupils who apply to Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities, it emerged this week.
Members of the Commons' education select committee heard that there was significant, though largely anecdotal, evidence that universities do not make conditional offers to applicants who list Oxford, Cambridge and certain other institutions as one of their six choices.
The reason may be that some institutions feel there is no point pursuing candidates who will almost certainly go to a top university if they achieve their predicted grades.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, told the committee on Tuesday: "(There is) evidence that institutions are discriminating against other institutions."
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman Evan Harris asked whether state schools were aware that pupils who applied to Oxford and Cambridge could face discrimination.
Dr Higgins said he thought they were and that this was one of the reasons why Ucas will introduce a blind decision-making process from 2003 so that institutions do no know where else an applicant has applied.
After the session, Dr Harris said: "I find it quite astonishing that universities discriminate against state school applicants to Oxford and Cambridge. If this is fairly common knowledge in state schools, then it will only serve to discourage pupils from applying to certain universities. It is discrimination against the high aspirations of the brightest pupils " On Wednesday, Oxford University's vice-chancellor, Colin Lucas, told the committee he was aware of anecdotal evidence of discrimination against applicants to Oxford. But he said that he would regret it if Ucas was changing its applications system on the basis of anecdote.
Dr Lucas was asked by Labour MP Gordon Marsden whether he agreed with the new tariff system that will be introduced by Ucas for applications in 2002.
The aim is to enable other qualifications, such as the new advanced Scottish Highers and vocational awards, to be calibrated accurately against A levels.
Jane Minto, secretary of the Oxford Colleges Admissions Office, said that Oxford had decided not to adopt a tariff system for the time being.