State school pupils who apply for the most selective degree courses at top universities are as likely to win a place as private school pupils with similar A-level results, but are less likely to put their names forward in the first place, according to research published on Wednesday.

The findings suggest that it is state school pupils who are shunning top universities, rather than the other way around.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, the education charity that co-published the report with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said: “Many highly able pupils from non-privileged backgrounds wrongly perceive the most prestigious universities as ‘not for the likes of us’, and often lack the support and guidance to overcome this misconception.”

The report said: “The single most important factor determining the probability that students obtained a place on one of the most academically demanding degree courses was the student’s own A-level (or equivalent) results.”

But beyond this, it said: “Differences in participation rates on the most academically demanding courses can be largely explained by differences in the number and patterns of applications from different types of school or college”.

It concluded: “Therefore, it appears that young people with similar attainment, who applied to one of the most academically demanding degree courses, were around as likely to get an offer, regardless of the type of school or college they attended.”

But because of differences in application rates, the report found that a student with the equivalent of grades ABB at A-level who attended an independent school would have a 79 per cent chance of entering one of Britain’s 500 most selective degree courses, compared with a 70 per cent chance for the equivalent state school student.

The report’s findings undermine regular attacks on leading universities for not admitting enough students from state schools.

Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, whose department recently took on responsibility for universities, has taken a more nuanced view. Commenting on university calls for higher tuition fees ahead of a review into the subject, he said last month: “Any institution that wants to use greater costs to the student to fund excellence must face an equal expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just those with the ability to pay.”

Responding to the report, Lord Mandelson avoided apportioning blame, saying: “Our challenge over the coming months is to look at the whole education system, especially the journey from school or college into higher education, so as to widen participation and raise aspiration further.”

The research excludes students who did not earn at least one A-level from a list of six traditional academic subjects selected by the researchers: English, maths, history, physics, chemistry and biology.

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