Universities 'right to discriminate'

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Universities will be given the go ahead tomorrow to offer places to disadvantaged youngsters with lower A-level grades.

A government task force will say higher education institutions are within their rights to take a student's background into account when deciding whether to offer a place.

The task force, chaired by Professor Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, makes the recommendation after a consultation exercise revealed that more than 70 per cent of universities backed the idea of taking neighbourhood and family background into account.

The report will stop short of recommending that universities adopt formal positive discrimination procedures to widen access to working-class students - saying students' potential should be assessed individually.

The consultation showed that many admissions tutors were worried that such a move could lead to litigation from the parents of middle-class students with top grade, A-level passes.

Ministers are likely to welcome the report's findings and will stress that decisions on university admissions should be left to the institutions.

Research by the task force revealed that one in three universities already consider school background, which is likely to become more widespread after the Schwartz report and the setting up of the Office for Fair Access - whose head has been dubbed the "access tsar". He will have the power to fine universities up to £500,000 if they fail to stick to agreements to widen participation. The official will also be able to refuse them permission to charge the maximum £3,000 top-up fee.

The tough policy on widening access was one of the key elements of the Higher Education Bill which persuaded enough Labour MPs to come on board and ensure its passage through the House of Commons last week.