It ignites fury over university admissions unlike any other subject. Should oversubscribed universities allow students from disadvantaged areas to take up sought-after places despite having lower A-level qualifications? The debate is now being rekindled by analysis from Birmingham University, which for the past ten years has been targeting potential students from "hard to reach" communities through its A2B (Access to Birmingham) scheme.
The scheme covers students in schools where there is scant history of pupils going on to university – and whose overall results are below the national average. The results from these recruits show they are leapfrogging those from wealthier homes in obtaining higher degree passes despite starting off at university with worse A-level results,
The scheme, which is being mirrored in other Russell Group universities, has shown that the disadvantaged students have consistently outperformed the rest.
Professor David Eastwood, the university's vice-chancellor (and a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England) admits that their performance is just "slightly better" but argues that it still represents a vindication of the university's approach.
Last year saw a 7.9 per cent rise in the number of students from this background obtaining first-class degrees. They were also less likely to drop out of university or fail to obtain a degree. In the four years up to 2008, the drop-out rate amongst the A2B group was 11.4 per cent compared to 12.8 per cent amongst other students.
One of the arguments put forward for explaining their better showing is that they have had to struggle against adversity to get, say, two As and a B – whereas in selective and independent schools the whole culture is geared towards top-grade academic passes.
Both Labour and Conservative ministers have been reluctant to force universities' hands on this one – arguing that admissions policies are best left up to individual universities to decide upon. However, for that very reason, they would be unlikely to step in and overrule any university that decided to go down this road. Which, if you think universities should be judged on their results, should be a good thing if the Birmingham scheme is anything to go by.