Britain’s top universities have become more socially exclusive since the mid-1990s, according to a government-commissioned report that looks at how to get more children from disadvantaged backgrounds into highly selective institutions.

Young people from districts where many parents are graduates were almost seven times more likely to go to universities with tough grade requirements last year, compared with young people from places where few parents are graduates.

This compares with a ratio of only 5.7 in 1995.

The report, by Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, underlines how often young people’s education future is determined by their parents’ educational past. Offa is government agency that promotes “fair access” to university.

Putting the case for why social mobility in universities should be higher, Sir Martin says: “Graduates from the most selective institutions predominate within the most sought-after and influential careers, and in general, command higher salaries.” He argues further: “As well as being socially unacceptable that too few people from disadvantaged backgrounds realise their full potential, it is also economically wasteful.”

The report arrives at its ratios by looking at university entrants to the top third of universities that are most selective. It compares entrants to these universities from the 20 per cent of areas with the highest proportion of children with graduate parents, with those from the 40 per cent of areas with the lowest proportion of graduate parents.

Sir Martin is eager to praise highly selective universities for their attempts to encourage children whose parents are not graduates to apply, saying: “without these efforts we would have seen a decline in both the absolute and relative participation rates of such students in the most selective third of institutions.”

His report recommends that “the key to widening access to the most selective universities” is for them to identify “bright but disadvantaged youngsters at an early age” – the age of 14 at the latest – and then given them “sustained support and advice over a number of years”.

The report was commissioned in November 2009 by then Labour universities minister David Lammy, to provide information for the government-appointed Browne review into higher education funding. The review, which is expected in the autumn to recommend the right level of tuition fees, has been endorsed by the new government.

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