A top university has announced plans to lower entry grades for disadvantaged students, as figures show the gulf between rich and poor pupils winning degree places has reached record levels.
Bristol University said the initiative, designed to boost diversity among its students, would see local people offered places based on lower entry requirements.
The vice-chancellor and president, Hugh Brady, said the university wanted to make a “step change” in opening the institution up to students from all backgrounds.
The announcement comes as new statistics from Ucas, which administers university entry, showed that children who receive free school meals – a key measure of poverty – were less than half as likely to enter higher education than those who do not, the biggest gap in recent years.
While there has been a steady increase in entry levels among less wealthy students over the last 10 years, an increase of 78% proportionally, this has slowed sharply since 2015, according to Ucas’s annual report.
The figures will come as a blow to Theresa May, who put slashing inequality at the heart of her government’s ambitions when she became prime minister in July.
Overall, the UK university acceptance rate for more advantaged students is increasing about five times faster (up 1.4 percentage points to 32.8%) than for their poorer peers who receive free dinners (up 0.3 percentage points to 16.1%), the Ucas figures show.
While this marks an all-time high for the amount entering university from both demographics, the difference in growth means the gap between rich and poor is the widest since 2006.
This 16.7 percentage point difference is the “largest recorded value” between the two groups, Ucas said.
Under Bristol University’s plans, lower offers will be made to five “high potential” students from every school in the local area, with eligibility based on headteachers’ assessment of potential and progress, rather than just exam results.
The university said it would also make more use of “contextual data” which takes into account an applicant’s background or school when making offers.
Students attending state schools and colleges that are in the bottom 40% in terms of A-level results and sending students on to higher education, will receive offers two grades lower than the standard offer for the course.
Brady said: “These are bold measures designed to address a problem that is seen across the education sector.
“At Bristol, we have spent £18m on recruiting and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the last 10 years, and much as we are making good progress, we want to make a step change in opening up our university to students from all backgrounds.
“We’re confident that, in time, we will achieve a more diverse student community at the University of Bristol; this will be a change which will benefit everyone, and something we hope other universities will consider replicating.”
“Our report underlines this point, showing that nearly three-quarters of the group least likely to enter university are men, most are from lower income families, and nine out of 10 are in the white ethnic group.
“Although the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education has reached record levels again this year, there are early signals that the good progress made in recent years may be slowing down.
“The best way to get on track to better progress is to focus efforts on improving GCSE outcomes for all children, which we know is the primary driver of increased entry rates to higher education.”
The universities and and science minister, Jo Johnson, said: “It is welcome news that record numbers of students secured places at university this year and that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now more than a third more likely to enter higher education than in 2010.