Universities oppose positive discrimination for candidates from state schools, although some admit to a tacit bias, according to a poll of admissions officers.
The THES poll shows that a majority of respondents also believe that the reform of the sixth-form curriculum two years ago is doing little to widen participation.
The government is pushing universities, particularly the older research-intensive institutions, to raise the proportion of places given to state-school pupils. Higher education minister Margaret Hodge wants universities to place less weight on the traditional A-level entry requirement.
But most universities judge all applications on their merits, the poll found. This is despite the fact that pupils from state schools, particularly those from poor backgrounds, do less well on average at A level than their public-school counterparts.
An education department spokeswoman said it did not advocate positive discrimination. But she said: "Each university will need to reach its own view on the account it takes of the personal circumstances of each applicant."
Nearly 70 per cent of admissions staff are against structuring the admissions system to favour students from state schools. Almost 18 per cent want changes that will favour state-school pupils. Five per cent are unsure.
Admissions officers at post-1992 universities are more likely to favour such changes than those at older universities.
Almost 77 per cent deny personal bias in favour of applicants from state schools, while 10 per cent admit that they or their institution favour such applicants. Although the number admitting to possible positive discrimination is small, there is an equal number in new and old universities. Five per cent are unsure.
Many respondents said that while the admissions system and individual institutions and admissions tutors should not "favour" state-school pupils, there was a case for "special consideration" of such applicants.
This is because poor school and domestic conditions may have prevented many candidates gaining good A levels despite their considerable achievements in such conditions. Such candidates, though more difficult to identify, would benefit from higher education.
The poll was conducted anonymously, but some respondents agreed to talk to The THES.
Lee Martin, head of student inquiry and applicant services at Kingston University, said the university identified students with qualifications other than A levels and took extra trouble to assess their learning potential.
He said that many universities in effect discriminated against applicants with non-traditional qualifications because they lacked the resources to do the job properly when the pressure was on to make decisions fast.
Martine Somerville, admissions officer at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: "We need to be a lot more subtle in interpreting applicants'
potential to succeed."
The THES poll reveals that 77 per cent of institutions use the new tariff of qualifications points devised by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. The tariff aims to make it easier for admissions staff to compare the relative worth of a range of academic and vocational qualifications. Of this 77 per cent, almost a quarter use it for some courses and not others.
Eighteen per cent of institutions, most of which were old universities, said they did not use it at all.
The poll also shows that 54 per cent of respondents think that the Curriculum 2000 reforms, which include the introduction of advanced-subsidiary (AS) qualifications and key skills, are failing to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. Twenty eight per cent think that the reforms are helping and nearly 13 per cent are unsure.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: Admissions procedures are resource-intensive... and they need the resources to meet them."
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is funding research into the admissions process.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, said: "We are favourably surprised that about 70 per cent are using the tariff. But I think we should be doing more research into the school curriculum and the way subjects prepare people for university."
The THES received responses from 36 higher education institutions, of which 29 were universities, 12 new and 17 old.
Widening participation debate www.thes.co.uk/commonroom