State school students are less likely to be in the UK's top universities even when they have the same A-level points as those from the independent sector, official figures show.
The Sutton Trust campaigns on behalf of disadvantaged students
An analysis of funding council statistics, undertaken for the Sutton Trust charity, suggests several thousand students either do not apply or have their grades under-estimated.
Part of the problem is the way university places are offered on predicted rather than actual results.
The Sutton Trust supports projects that provide educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds.
It asked experts at the Higher Education Funding Council for England to look at the latest available statistics - for the 2001-02 academic year - for a report due to be published in full next month.
These covered 29,800 English youngsters entering full-time first degree courses with A-level entry qualifications at the top 13 universities, as ranked by various newspapers.
INSTITUTIONS IN STUDY
Imperial College London
London School of Economics
University College London
Of the total, 10,400 were from independent schools - whereas the number that would have been expected, from their entry qualifications and the subjects they were studying, was 7,400.
Predictably, the more A-level points a student had, the more likely he or she was to go to one of these universities.
"But for any given A-level points, the proportion going to a top institution is higher for students from independent schools," said the Sutton Trust.
"In general students from state schools have the same proportion going to top institutions as students from independent schools with about four fewer points."
A-levels were - at the time - accorded university entrance points on a scale from 10 points for an A grade down to two points for an E. So four points was the equivalent of two grades. (The "tariff" changed from 2002).
The Sutton Trust has long argued that schools with a strong tradition of sending students to top universities identify potential candidates and encourage them to apply for the right courses.
The universities receiving the applications know they are from a reliable source and the predicted A-level grades are likely to be accurate.
And students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with no family tradition of going into higher education, are less likely to apply to the top universities.
A government-appointed taskforce on university admissions said in its interim report that universities should take account of more than just students' exam grades in selecting people.
It also said it did not want "to bias admissions in favour of applicants from certain backgrounds or schools".