STUDENTS from private schools are 55 times more likely to get a place at Oxford or Cambridge University than pupils who receive free meals at state schools, according to a new report out today.
The research also found private school pupils were 22 times more likely to go to a top-ranking university than students whose school meals are paid for – the Government's measure for identifying children facing deprivation.
The Sutton Trust, which carried out the report, said the gap in university participation could be traced back to performance at GCSEs, when students at independent schools were three-and-a-half times more likely than pupils on free school meals (FSM) to get five A* to C grades, including English and maths.
This led to less than one in 100 students admitted to Oxford or Cambridge between 2005 and 2007 being FSM pupils.
At the 25 most selective universities, FSM pupils made up just two per cent of the student intake compared with 72 per cent of other state school students.
The report, Responding to the new landscape for university access, said: "This newly available data provides an insight into the extent of the widening education gap between the latest cohorts of the poorest and most privileged students both at school and university.
"It also reveals that similarly highly academic selective universities can have very different numbers of FSM children on their degree courses – due in part to whether or not they are located in major cities."
The Sutton Trust said the Government's 150m-a-year National Scholarship Programme should be more widely targeted beyond just financial support for students.
The trust also called for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to remain independent after the higher education scheme Aimhigher was scrapped. The project worked with schools to get more pupils interested in going to university.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman and founder of the Sutton Trust, said: "The prospects for less privileged students getting into top universities will get more difficult with the almost tripling of tuition fees, and the ending of the Aimhigher scheme.
"Together these reforms amount to a completely new and uncertain landscape for university access for less privileged students.
"The new National Scholarship Programme is an opportunity to redress the balance, but it must be used to fund outreach work as well as providing tuition fee relief."
The scholarship programme is being brought in as part of the Government's plan to almost treble the cap on tuition fees to up to 9,000 a year.
Under the programme students who received free meals at school will have one year's fees paid for by the Government and if the university they go to charges more than 6,000 a year then that institution will also have to pay for another year of the undergraduate's study.