The background of students heading to university needs to be taken into account when it comes to awarding places to boost ‘equality of opportunity’.

The call comes from the University access watchdog, Office for Students, which says that while A-level grades are a robust measure there’s a need the context of the applicant to be considered.

Universities say they give extra help to a disadvantaged applicant wanting to enter university but a report highlights there is a lack of transparency about how this process works.

Recently, many universities have been accused of being socially exclusive and for not recruiting enough entrants from ethnic minorities.

The universities are also facing criticism for not being fair to applicants who miss out on a place to a disadvantaged candidate or has worse exam results.

How a university uses an applicant’s background

The Fair Education Alliance campaign group warns there should be transparency about how a university uses an applicant’s background when they make an offer and then awarding places.

The group says the criteria can take into account the family’s income and whether they live in a deprived area.

Also, if the applicant has attended a school with a poor exam record and where relatively few students go to university are also considered.

The Office for Students has been prompted by research from the University of Exeter which highlights the challenge facing universities.

Their figures reveal that not many places in 2016 were awarded to students from an area where few students go to university.

The University of Cambridge has revealed that just 3% of its entrants came from low participation neighbourhoods, while for the University of Bristol the figure is 3.7%, for Oxford it is 4.6% and for Exeter it is 5.3%.

‘We are a long way from equality of opportunity’

Now the director of fair access and participation at the Office for Students, Chris Millward, says: “We are a long way from equality of opportunity when it comes to accessing higher education.

“It’s an ambitious approach for context of admissions but it’s central to the strategy to make progress on access at the pace and scale necessary for meeting government expectations and the wider public and students.”

He added: “A-level grade can be considered to be a robust measure if they are considered along with the context in which they’ve been achieved.”

Sarah Stevens from the Russell Group of universities said its members use contextual data in various forms.

She explained: “Predicted grades and qualifications are key indicators of academic ability but a university will take other factors into account and appreciate the applicant’s achievements in context.”

She added that these criteria will include the college or school they attended, where they grew up and whether they are a care leaver and if they are the first in their family who will be entering higher education.