White pupils and those from private schools are more likely to be admitted to top universities than ethnic minority applicants and people from state schools even if they have the same A-levels, new research has found.
A study of 49,000 applications from 1996 to 2006 found the problem was partly due to people from state school backgrounds not applying to the elite Russell Group universities.
But according to Dr Vikki Boliver, a lecturer at Durham University's School of Applied Social Science, part of the problem was also down to the admissions process.
Compared to private school applicants with the same A-level grades, state school applicants were shown to be less likely to seek places at Russell Group universities in the first place, and to be less likely to be offered places at those top institutions when they did apply.
For ethnic minority applicants, the unfairness appeared to stem entirely from something during the admissions process, her research found.
University applicants with the same A-level grades were found to be equally likely to apply to Russell Group universities regardless of their ethnic background, but those from black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds were shown to be significantly less likely than white applicants to be offered places, even with the same results.
Dr Boliver said more research was needed, adding: "I think we have to look into this more deeply. This is something that cannot be ignored. We just know there is a problem, we need to know the causes."
The findings will be presented at a Higher Education Academy conference and published in the British Journal of Sociology in June.
The group's director general said the problem could be due to students picking the wrong A-level subjects.
Dr Wendy Piatt said: "Russell Group universities work hard to encourage students from a wide range of backgrounds to apply to them and we are far from complacent. But our universities face real difficulties as they work hard to attract students with the most talent, potential and ability from all backgrounds."