Most university heads were educated at grammar schools, and far fewer of them attended private schools than is the case with leading politicians, judges, journalists, doctors and chief executives.
A report by the Sutton Trust, released exclusively to Times Higher Education this week, reveals that while the privately educated dominate the country's elite, vice-chancellors are largely state-educated.
The findings also show that a relatively small number of university heads - fewer than one in four - graduated from Oxbridge. This is about half the proportion of Oxbridge-educated leaders in other professions.
"It is perhaps unsurprising that many of today's university leaders went to academically selective schools," said Lee Elliot Major, director of research at the Sutton Trust.
"But this research does reveal that vice-chancellors are largely a state-educated elite - examples of the postwar upwardly mobile generation who used education to climb the social ladder and benefited from an expanding higher education system."
According to the study, 58 per cent of university vice-chancellors went to state grammar schools and just over a fifth (20.5 per cent) attended independent schools.
This compares with the 70 per cent of High Court judges who were privately educated, 54 per cent of journalists and business chiefs, 51 per cent of medics and 38 per cent of leading politicians. A third - or less - of professionals from these groups went to grammar schools.
Seven in ten heads of new universities went to grammar schools, compared with five in ten of those who run old universities.
Those vice-chancellors who were educated at independent schools "did not attend the highly exclusive public schools that produce so many other prominent people in public life", the Sutton Trust's report says.
The proportion of vice-chancellors who went through the state school system has increased from 58.5 per cent to 66.5 per cent over the past decade, with the proportions from independent schools falling by more than five percentage points.
The report points out that most vice-chancellors were educated before the reforms of the 1970s, which led to the introduction of a largely comprehensive state system. State schools were organised into a minority of academically selective grammar schools and a majority of non-selective "secondary moderns".
"One of the enduring education debates is the strengths and weaknesses of this selective system," the report says.
"But what is clear is that grammars at that time offered those from non-privileged backgrounds ... a launch pad to academic careers and other opportunities."
As grammar schools are phased out, "the key question will be whether the current high proportion of state-educated university heads continues", the report says.
Nine out of ten vice-chancellors obtained their first degree at an old university, rather than a former polytechnic. One in five new-university leaders went to Oxbridge, compared with one in three vice-chancellors of old universities.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said: "I think it is quite an encouraging set of findings. It shows that the profession is less 'elitist' than many others, and it is a tremendous statement about the social mobility that grammar schools provided.
"In academia, ability is quite important for getting on, whereas I suspect that in a lot of other professions it is confidence and social capital that matter."
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, went to the City of Norwich School - at that time a grammar school - at the age of 11. "In many ways, it was the making of me," he said.
But he does not have a "rose-tinted" view of grammar schools, and he has argued that those from better-off backgrounds often got preferential treatment.
Professor Smith's parents were, he said, from "solidly working-class backgrounds".
He recalls them being upset after a parents' evening when his form master told them: "People like you don't go to university."
"The school actually suggested they found a job for me sweeping the floors of the local factory - which I'm sure many people at my institution think would have been more appropriate!" he joked.
For Professor Smith, chair of the 1994 Group of universities, it was one particular teacher who gave him the confidence to succeed.
"He took me aside after class one day and said, 'You are pretty bright, you are. Have you thought of doing A levels? You can do it.'
"I've never told him and maybe I should - but for that conversation, maybe I would be sweeping factories."
Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, was educated at Burnt Mill School - a comprehensive in Harlow that was also attended by Bill Rammell, the former Higher Education Minister.
He went on to study at the University of Southampton. He graduated in 1977 and became a research fellow and then lecturer in medicine in 1982.
Professor Arthur was appointed to the chair of medicine at the age of 37, later becoming head of the Medical School and then dean of Southampton's Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences.
In 2004, he was appointed head of the University of Leeds, a member of the Russell Group. He said his educational experience has informed "his passionate commitment to extending opportunity to all".
"I have a profound belief in the importance of education as a key mechanism for improving society and making it a more equal place. That is my starting point. Everything else follows."