University offers: Social background ignored
Many UK universities do not consider candidates' backgrounds when offering places, research suggests.
The government wants institutions to broaden access to higher education to include more, poorer students.
As well as strong grades, good written English, a passion for the course subject and a positive attitude to study are key to landing a place, suggests a poll of admissions officers.
Campaigner Sir Peter Lampl said context was "crucial for fair admissions".
The admissions tutors were asked to rate the qualities they most valued in would-be students in the study for an international school group.
More than three quarters (78%) of admissions tutors said they did not look at data on whether applicants' parents had been to university and only about a third (35%) considered that "evidence of success through a difficult start or background" was important.
Details of whether applicants had taken part in university outreach days or summer schools likewise had limited impact with just 20% of admissions tutors saying they looked at this data before they made a decision and 73% not looking at it at all.
Most admissions tutors appeared to prefer to "stay above the political fray" and select on "ability criteria alone", the research for ACS International Schools suggests.
Sir Peter, chairman of the Sutton Trust which campaigns for social mobility through better access to higher education for disadvantaged pupils, said: "Universities should consider where a student went to school, their parents' occupation and whether either parent went to university.
"The Sutton Trust prioritises children in its summer schools and other access programmes on this basis."
Some 80 UK admissions officers were interviewed for the survey, amounting to about a third of all admissions department heads, spanning a range of universities.
The ability to think and work independently was rated as important or very important to 72% of those interviewed.
A reasonable grasp of maths was important or very important for almost half (44%), while work experience and having held positions of responsibility and leadership was highly rated by fewer than a third.
Excellence in performing arts was rated highly by fewer than a quarter while most admissions tutors rated sport and voluntary work as relatively unimportant.
Jeremy Lewis of ACS hopes the survey will help students hone the personal statements they send to universities as part of their applications.
"It's useful to see exactly which attributes really hit the mark with admission teams. Much seems to boil down to an ability communicate their passion."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "Many universities do consider a range of other contextual factors alongside applicants' grades, but this is a decision for individual universities.
"However, universities do not use a formulaic approach to admissions, based on specific measures such as whether an applicant's parents had attended university or whether they had encountered a 'difficult start'. Instead they use a broad range of information to help identify an applicant's potential, which cannot always be determined from grades alone.
"It is about offering places based on an applicant's abilities and potential to succeed."
The survey also asked admissions tutors for their views on the relative merits of A-levels, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Scottish Highers.
Those questioned rated A-levels highest for subject expertise but found the IB better for qualities such as encouraging independent inquiry and training students to cope with pressure.
ACS runs three schools in the UK, charging tuition fees of some £22,000 a year. Pupils take the IB rather than A-levels.