Figures suggest almost two thirds of universities will use data covering students’ social class, parental education or school performance next year to give the most disadvantaged candidates a better chance of getting on to degree courses. It represents a sharp increase on the four in 10 universities currently relying on “contextual” data during admissions. In a move that could leave institutions open to charges of “social engineering”, increasing numbers of admissions tutors are planning to use the information to make lower-grade offers to teenagers from poor-performing comprehensives or fast-track deprived candidates into interviews. The government’s Office for Fair Access has warned that universities have to be more “ambitious” in their efforts to create a diverse student body. For the first time next year, they will be required to set targets for the number of disadvantaged students being admitted in a move that coincides with a sharp rise in tuition fees. It represents an escalation of the current rules that merely require institutions to generate more applications. Figures suggest that more than 20,000 students at almost 100 universities are already admitted to degree courses each year using contextual data and this number could rise in 2012 and beyond. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills insisted that it was “valid and appropriate” to use this information to pick out applicants with “potential”. The disclosure in a new report will alarm many private school headmasters who fear the changes risk penalising academic pupils from top performing schools. Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, said: “The things we object to are any attempt to discriminate by school type, and the use of data which is inaccurate – which most of it is.” In the latest study, researchers surveyed almost 100 universities on their use of contextual information. The report, by the organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, which advises universities on admissions policies, found that 41.5 per cent of institutions used this data to admit students in autumn 2011. But it said that almost 63 per cent of universities “indicated that they plan to use it in the future”, including for next year’s admissions when tuition fees will rise from £3,000 to a maximum of £9,000 a year. The survey suggested that universities aligned to the elite Russell Group, which represents Oxford, Cambridge and other leading institutions were “more likely to be using contextual data” than other institutions. Almost 23 per cent of universities said they were planning to make “lower offers” to some candidates from poor backgrounds — potentially awarding them places with worse A-level grades than students from top schools. This was up from 18 per cent in 2011.