Students from poor backgrounds stand less chance of securing a degree place than those from more prosperous backgrounds when applying for medicine and a variety of other subjects, an exclusive analysis by The Times Higher reveals.
The first detailed breakdown of the social backgrounds of student applications and admissions by different disciplines exposes a stark class divide among different university subjects.
Almost three-quarters of students admitted to medical courses last year came from the top three social classes. In modern languages, history and philosophy the proportion was more than two-thirds.
Divisions were almost as obvious in the success rates of applicants from different social classes.
Students from rich backgrounds were more likely than their poorer peers to win a university place in medicine and dentistry and subjects allied to medicine, which include pharmacology, optometry and nursing.
Rich and poor students stand an equal chance of success in some subjects, such as law, while other disciplines, such as the physical sciences, offer better chances to applicants from lower social classes.
The analysis of 2003 admissions does not reveal the reasons behind the discrepancies, but it will prompt more questions about whether universities do enough to ensure that applicants are treated equally irrespective of their backgrounds.
Steven Schwartz - the vice-chancellor of Brunel University and head of the admissions task force, whose interim report last month found no evidence that university admissions were systematically unfair - said the figures suggested that applicants from rich backgrounds had access to resources that allowed them to impress admissions tutors in certain subjects.
Applicants for medicine who had used family connections to find relevant work experience could better demonstrate their commitment to medicine than those without such links.
Peter Dangerfield, chair of the board of medical education at the British Medical Association and a senior lecturer at Liverpool University, said:
"If the system was working it should be a level playing field - but it's not, there is obviously something wrong. We have got to offer a fair opportunity to everyone, and we are taking this very seriously."
He said a BMA investigation into medical schools' admissions was due to report in the summer.
The analysis showed that some 62 per cent of applicants from the higher social classes were accepted onto a full-time course in medicine and dentistry. The corresponding figure for the lower classes was 56 per cent.
The analysis, which was based on students applying through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in 2003, used the latest definition for social classifications.
The largest discrepancy between acceptance rates for higher-class and lower-class applicants was in subjects allied to medicine. The success rate for applicants from the higher classes was 77 per cent, while the corresponding figure for the lower classes was 67 per cent.
Many subject areas suggest fairer odds for students. Applicants to study law stand an equal chance of gaining a place regardless of social class - 86 per cent of all applicants succeed.
In the physical sciences, applicants from the lower classes have a better chance of getting a university place than those from the higher classes.
Indeed, because applicants are classified according to the subject most frequently listed on the application form, this creates the impression that more people accepted a place than applied for one.
The acceptance rate for the physical sciences was 102 per cent from the higher classes and 105 per cent from the lower classes.
The analysis comes as preliminary research findings, from academics at Plymouth University and the University of the West of England, suggest that poor students are less likely to benefit from bursaries because of bureaucracy or fears of being "stigmatised". Initial results suggest that "only a small proportion of those from low-income backgrounds actually access and benefit from the bursary support available to them".
According to the researchers: "Whether this was due to a lack of awareness about the schemes, fear of stigma, a disinclination for bureaucracy or a reluctance to disclose financial information is not yet clear."
News, pages 8-9