Six universities were rebuked yesterday after official statistics revealed they were more socially exclusive than Oxford and Cambridge.
Bristol, Exeter, Reading and Southampton universities and two former polytechnics, Oxford Brookes and West of England, were criticised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for failing to admit enough students from state schools and poor backgrounds.
They fell foul of three indicators used to measure the success of widening access to higher education, taking account of each university's circumstances.
Oxford and Cambridge each received two black marks for failing to reach their targets for state school pupils and lower social classes. But they escaped a third rebuke after the number of students from areas with little experience of higher education was judged to be reasonable.
Universities' success at admitting students from state schools, the lowest social classes and areas with no history of higher education was judged against a "benchmark", which took into account each institution's circumstances and student intake.
Oxford ranked bottom for the proportion of state school pupils. Only 51 per cent of its students were state-educated, compared with 52 per cent at Cambridge and 57 per cent at Bristol. At the other end of the scale, all students at Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University and 99 per cent of those at Luton University came from state schools.
Eleven institutions, almost all former polytechnics, were praised for their success at recruiting students from poor backgrounds. Bolton Institute of Higher Education and Central England, Huddersfield, Liverpool Hope, Liverpool John Moores, Sunderland, Teesside, Wolverhampton, Abertay Dundee, Glasgow Caledonian and Paisley universities exceeded all their targets for widening access.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the HEFCE, said the figures showed how far universities still had to go if the Government's target of 50 per cent of young people having a degree by 2010 was to be reached. He said: "Universities and colleges recognise that to achieve progress towards the Government's target, they need to develop clear targets and action plans. These figures will help them to renew such efforts.
"We are working to build stronger relationships with colleges and secondary schools in each region to raise the aspirations of all young people, whatever their background."
The stark divide between universities was also revealed in the drop-out figures published by HEFCE yesterday.
Nationally, the expected drop-out rate fell slightly to 16 per cent, down from 17 per cent last year. But urban ex-polytechnics that became universities in 1992 dominated the top 10 of institutions with the highest student drop-out rates. The University of North London topped the table with a projected drop-out level of 41 per cent for students who started their degree in 1998.
The second worst university was South Bank, also in London, which had a projected drop-out rate of 33 per cent.Reuse content