The Government's most senior exams adviser accused universities yesterday of using "spurious positive discrimination" to accept students from low-income backgrounds.
Nick Tate, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said efforts to give those from deprived areas wider access to university risked discriminating against more affluent students with good A-levels.
Universities are paid bonuses for taking on students from areas with no history of sending young people into higher education. Several universities also operate "discount" schemes, making lower offers to sixth formers from schools in deprived areas.
Dr Tate, who will take over as headmaster of Winchester College in September, told a conference of 250 independent school heads he was "concerned at the quality of debate about university entrance and equality of opportunity. People need to get there on the basis of merit and attainment, not on the basis of some sort of spurious positive discrimination, not on the basis of crude devices which give them extra points because they come from schools which have poor A-level scores."
Dr Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Brighton College, said positive discrimination by universities was one of five big threats to Britain's independent schools. He warned that increases in school fees, rising standards in the state sector and the possibility of university top-up fees could encourage parents to opt for state education.
Professor Alan Smithers, the director Liverpool University's centre for education and employment research, said: "Independent schools are increasingly being placed in the strange position of having to defend themselves for doing such a good job."
He told heads at the conference, organised by the Independent Schools Council, that discriminating against high performers was "foolish". There was no systematic bias against private school pupils, he said, but "it does look like individual admissions officers are making allowances be-cause of social factors."
But Ruth Deech, the principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, said university admissions officers were fair. Latest admissions figures show 40.3 per cent of state school pupils who applied to Oxford gained a place, compared with 44.6 per cent of those from the independent sector. "I do not believe in social engineering. I do not believe in quotas. There is no way we are going to go along the path of American universities in positive discrimination," she said.
Isabelle Brent, of the Sutton Trust, a charity to encourage more state school pupils to go to leading universities, said there was evidence to suggest universities favoured independent school applicants, despite two-thirds of those with three As at A-level having come from state schools.
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