The University of Birmingham is among several Russell Group universities that have been accused of socially engineering their intake during the applications process.
Along with Edinburgh, Leeds and Bristol, Birmingham has drawn up a points system, which effectively boosts the grades of children from poorer homes to give them a better chance of winning a place, according to requests under the Freedom of Information Act by The Sunday Telegraph.
In 2011, Birmingham granted admission tutors the power to allocate undergraduate places using a scoring system which gives points for contextual information, if courses are oversubscribed in future years. Up to 11 points are allocated for background data including the uptake of free school meals, an indicator of poverty.
Critics have said that the points system amounts to ‘generic discrimination’ against middle class students and warned that tutors are being stripped of the power to select those who would solely benefit most from the course.
The Chief Executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), Mary Curnock Cook, has said that she had ‘real concerns about whether the contextual data is sophisticated enough’ to be reliable.
However the Government has increasingly encouraged institutions to attract a wider mix of students and has backed the use of applicants’ backgrounds (known as ‘contextual data’) despite not specifying how the information should be used.
Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said in May that universities should take ‘into account the impact of background in assessing university applications’ to create a ‘fair race’ for degree places. This was backed up by the new director of the Office for Fair Access, Professor Les Ebdon, who warned that he would fine universities that do not attract a better social mix of students.
Despite the accusations, a spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said: ‘We do not currently use score applications. Using contextual data is something we have considered and we have the outline of a possible system, which we would only use after extensive verification of its fitness for purpose.’