Figures suggest almost two-thirds of universities will employ data covering students’ social class, parental education or school performance next year to give the most disadvantaged candidates a better chance of getting on to degree courses.
It represents a sharp rise on the four-in-10 universities currently relying on “contextual” data during admissions.
In a move that could leave institutions open to charges of “social engineering”, increasing numbers of admissions tutors are planning to employ information to make lower-grade offers to teenagers from poor-performing comprehensives or fast-track deprived candidates into interviews.
The changes come after the Government’s Office for Fair Access warned that universities had to be more “ambitious” in their efforts to create a diverse student body.
For the first time next year, they will be required to set targets for the number of disadvantaged students being admitted in a move that coincides with a sharp rise in tuition fees.
It represents an escalation of the current rules that merely require institutions to generate more applications.
Figures suggest more than 20,000 students at almost 100 universities alone are already admitted to degree courses each year using contextual data and this number could soar in 2012 and beyond.
Last night, the Government insisted that it was “valid and appropriate” to use this information to pick out applicants with “potential”.
But the disclosure – in a new report published by admissions experts – will alarm many private school headmasters who fear the changes risk penalising academic pupils from top performing schools.
Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, said: "The independent sector sees nothing wrong with looking at the potential of students in addition to prior attainment. But comprehensive research shows that prior attainment remains the most reliable indicator of future performance at university.
“The things we object to are any attempt to discriminate by school type, and the use of data which is inaccurate – which most of it is.”
Universities can currently take a range of information into account when admitting students. This includes the performance of candidates’ previous school, whether they were educated in the state or independent sector, family income, parents’ education, the number of people from their local neighbourhood already going on to university and if they have been in care.
In the latest study, researchers surveyed almost 100 universities on their use of contextual information.
The report, by the organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, which advises universities on admissions policies, found that 41.5 per cent of institutions used this data to admit students in autumn 2011.
But it said that almost 63 per cent of universities “indicated that they plan to use it in the future”, including for 2012 admissions when tuition fees rise from just £3,000 to a maximum of £9,000 a year.
The survey suggested that universities aligned to the elite Russell Group, which represents Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and University College London, were “more likely to be using contextual data” than other institutions.
Almost 23 per cent of universities said they were planning to make “lower offers” to some candidates from poor backgrounds – giving them potentially giving them places with worse A-level grades than students from top schools. This was up from 18 per cent in 2011.
The report found 45 per cent of universities would use contextual data “when considering borderline” students during the admissions process, compared with 35 per cent this year.
A third of universities said they would consider students’ social background when deciding which applicants to invite for interview. Only 23 per cent did this in 2011.
The move could lead to a sharp rise in the number of poor students being admitted to university.
According to the report, 20,420 students at universities responding to the survey “are reported to have been affected in some way by contextual data” each year. This suggests the true figure could be more than twice as large.
Admissions rules published by leading universities already underline the extent to which institutions employ this data.
Oxford’s entry policy – published on its own website – said candidates would be “flagged” up to admissions officers if their school is below the national average, if they have been in care for more than three months or come from a poor area.
Although they are not guaranteed a place, these students will be “strongly recommended for interview”.
Cambridge suggest students will be “flagged” if they have been in care, come from a postcode with a poor history of going on to higher education, attend a poor performing school or apply through the university’s special access scheme.
Birmingham University said student’s background may be “factored in to move an applicant up the ranking order” while Leeds said the poorest teenagers may receive lower offers – potentially requiring them to gain an A and two Bs instead of three As for the most demanding courses.
According to Manchester, information about students’ backgrounds will not result in a lower offer but is likely to be considered during interviews.
Warwick said data could be used when assessing candidates “who narrowly miss the terms of their offers at results time”.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Universities are independent institutions that control their own admissions.
“But we believe it is valid and appropriate for them to use contextual data where they believe it can reveal applicants with potential and so long as they act in a fair, transparent and evidence-based way."