Alan Milburn said it should be the “norm not the exception” to take account of applicants’ family and school history to create a more balanced student body.
He said teenagers from poor backgrounds attending low-achieving schools “had to work harder to get decent A-levels” than similar pupils brought up by “well-off parents”.
Some universities – particularly the most selective institutions – already carry out personal checks on candidates.
The data is often used to make lower–grade offers to teenagers from poor–performing comprehensives or fast–track deprived candidates into interviews.
But Mr Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister, said this data should be put to more routine use because A-levels results alone are “not fool-proof in predicting future performance” on degree courses.
The comments come just months before he publishes a series of three reports for the Coalition on social mobility and child poverty.
One – due in mid-June – will focus on fair access to higher education and is expected to urge universities to take more account of applicants’ backgrounds as part of selection procedures.
But it is likely to provoke anger among many senior Conservatives who claim that the approach excuses poor performance at schools in deprived areas.
It follows controversy over the appointment of Prof Les Ebdon as the Government’s new director of fair access, after he attacked top universities that fail to take their share of disadvantaged students.
But speaking to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s quarterly journal, Mr Milburn said: “It is time, in my view, that the use of data that takes account of the educational and social context of pupils’ achievement becomes the norm, not the exception, across the country.
“This, I know, is controversial terrain. But without concerted action here, I simply do not believe we will make progress in ensuring access to university is genuinely open to the widest possible range of students.”
Universities can currently use “contextual data” covering candidates’ ethnicity, postcode, family income and level of parental education during the admissions process. They can also take account of average pupil performance at their school.
A study last year found that around four-in-10 universities access this data, with around a fifth using it to admit poor students on lower A-level grades than other candidates.
Mr Milburn said that universities “would like to do more of this sort of thing but are fearful of the consequences”.
“Some of the top universities worry about their standing in international league tables if they are seen to soften entry requirements,” he said.
“Many others are simply afraid of being charged with social engineering or positive discrimination.”
He added: “Most people would accept that a youngster with no family history of going to university, from a disadvantaged area, attending a low-achieving school, has had to work harder to get decent A-levels than a similar youngster who has attended a top school, having been brought up by well-off parents who know the university system like the back of their hands.”
But the comments were criticised by academics.
Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “Politicians should not be meddling with university admissions – they should be putting their energies into creating an excellent and equitable schools’ system for everyone.
“Universities, like Premier League football teams, should be allowed to select the best possible talent among those available to them.”