Students from ethnic minorities, including Asians, find it tougher to secure places at top British universities than their white peers with similar grades, according to a new study.

Research by Durham University, to be published in the ‘British Journal of Sociology’ in June, found that white pupils and those at private schools were more likely to be successful in their applications than black, Asian and state school pupils with the same A-level grades.

“The headline conclusion of the analysis is that access to Russell Group universities is far from ‘fair’,” says Dr Vikki Boliver, the author of the report.

100-0017_IMGThe Russell Group represents 24 of the UK’s most prestigious universities including the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. Researchers looked at application data of these universities for 49,000 students from 1996 to 2006. Using data from the UCAS admissions service, they found that some pupils were less likely to get places than others and also discovered different patterns of under-representation for different groups of applicants. For black and Asian applicants, the study says the barrier appeared to be in the admissions process.

They were confident enough to apply to these top universities, but were less likely to be offered places than similarly qualified white students.

Dr Boliver said that there was a need to look “more deeply” into what was happening as their analysis of UCAS data cannot show why there should be a different pattern of acceptances for different groups. “This is something that cannot be ignored. We just know there is a problem, we need to know the causes,” she said, adding that it might reflect that the applications process uses predicted grades rather than actual A-level results.

The Russell Group suggests there could be other factors influencing the different outcomes. Although A-level grades between two applicants might appear to be the same, this does not show the range of subjects they have taken.

Another factor could be that applications from ethnic minority pupils are disproportionately focused on some of the most over-subscribed and competitive courses, such as medicine which require the highest grades.

“Sadly many good students are simply not getting the right advice and guidance on which advanced-level subjects will qualify them for their chosen course,” said Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group. “Many good students simply haven’t done the subjects needed for entry universities need students not only to have good grades, but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for,” she said