Statistics showing a drop of almost 5% in Bristol's admission of state school students - the biggest in England's top universities - have been greeted with mixed reactions.
The figures emerged as a result of a Channel 4 News investigation. They showed that out of the sixteen English universities in the Russell Group (the group of prestige research-led universities), thirteen had failed to reach their individual state school benchmarks, revealing an increasing class divide in England's universities.
According to the report, between 2003/04 and 2005/06, Bristol's proportion of state school students had fallen dramatically by 4.75%, at just 60.45% of the student population. Only 7% of children in the UK go to private schools, but they currently constitute over 40% of students at Bristol.
However, the university disputes the Channel 4 figures. Presenting statistics from the academic registry, the university contends that there was a fall of just 2% over the two years, giving a lower starting point of 62% for 2003/04. But according to the university's own figures, Bristol is still 18% below its benchmark for the admission of students from the state sector. Furthermore, the university's statistics for autumn 2006 showed Bristol's proportion of state school students has dropped by a further 2%, to 58% of the university population.
Opinion is divided as to who, or what, is to blame for these figures, with fingers being pointed at everyone from teachers, the "poor" state education received by many, a "failing" A-level system, a lack of aspiration on behalf of the students, as well as the universities' admissions processes.
While many academics argue that the culprit is the "poor state education" received by many pupils, Bristol refuses to play the blame game. A spokesman for the university, Barry Taylor, told Epigram, "We believe that all the main stakeholders have a role to play in maintaining or lifting educational standards and in raising aspirations. For one group to blame any or all of the others would be spectacularly counter-productive".
The university is certainly taking its role in ensuring fairer access seriously. "There are two main reasons why the university thinks it is a problem that the student body is not even more diverse," Mr Taylor contends. "Firstly, Bristol seeks the students with the greatest academic ability, motivation and potential, irrespective of their background. Such people exist in every walk of life and the figures suggest that we are missing out on some of them. Secondly, there is plenty of evidence that there are academic and social advantages in having a very diverse student body."
The university's initiatives include residential summer schools, taster days and pupil mentoring and working with schools and colleges across the university and in the wider community. The government, for its part, has spent nearly £350 million trying to increase student numbers from poorer backgrounds, but the money has had little or no effect on the middle-class domination of university places.
This is a particularly sensitive issue for the University of Bristol. A media storm surrounded the university in 2003 when it became embroiled in a row about admissions policies, with some private schools threatening a boycott based on their claims that the university was discriminating against their students. Ever since, those on either side of the widening participation debate have focused on Bristol. On one side, the university is accused of failing to shed its elitist, snobbish, image in headlines like, "Bristol: only the middle class need apply".
On the other side, it is accused of discriminating against independent schools. Mr Taylor comments, "It is curious to watch the pundits flip-flop between condemning us for seeking to widen participation and for not doing enough to widen participation".
University of Bristol Union (UBU) President, Ben Ullmann, feels that the problem is largely out of the control of the university. He highlights the primary issue as perception of what Bristol is like: "Even with generous bursary schemes, there is a stigma attached to the university which will not be combated by finance alone. The Widening Participation Office runs some excellent summer schools and other schemes precisely for that reason".
"The second issue which unfortunately we have no control over is the whole host of problems associated with primary and secondary education," Mr Ullmann says. "One of the biggest reasons Bristol doesn't hit its targets is because, although it offers places to enough widening participation candidates, they don't achieve the grades required for entry and so end up going elsewhere."
NUS President, Gemma Tumelty, told Epigram, "Elite universities such as Bristol need to invest in widening participation, they need to ensure they offer robust financial support and the type of flexible learning and access requirements that will be key to diversifying their student intake. Bristol is a fantastic university, but its benefits need to be accessible to all kinds of students- not just the white middle-class intake that has traditionally dominated elite campuses".
These statistics emerged just after the announcement that there had been a rise in the number of students applying to university, despite the introduction of top-up fees at the beginning of the year. Mr Taylor suggests that Bristol's falling rate of admission of state school students might be "perhaps because more state school pupils than independent school pupils were put off by higher tuition fees, although that appears to have been a temporary effect given that applications to Bristol for 2007 are up 14% overall, more than at any other member of the Russell Group".
A further proposal was announced in January, whereby sixth formers hoping to go to university will have to declare on their application form if their parents have a degree. For the first time, pupils will have to answer questions that will effectively enable admission tutors to establish the family background of candidates at the start of the application process. It will also be used to judge whether institutions have hit new widening participation benchmarks set by the government.
Out of this confusion and heated debate, one thing remains clear: this is an issue that is not going to go away. The battle to gain entry into Britain's elite academic institutions, and the resulting war of words, will continue to be bitterly fought.