Purpose – This article analyses how higher education institutions (HEIs) have responded to government policy to increase the participation rates of students from lower social classes through their admissions policies. Design/methodology/approach – The article uses documentary evidence and interviews with institutional policy makers to examine HEI admissions policies and the rationale underpinning them. Findings – This research found that admissions policies owed more to the nature of demand than attempts to widen participation. Old universities tend to ask for high A-level grades and were sceptical about the value of vocational qualifications, but demonstrated a willingness to be more flexible where there was a low demand for courses. Less prestigious institutions tend to recruit more students from working class backgrounds because of the markets they were able to recruit in rather than because of their widening participation policies. Research limitations/implications – Whilst this study is based on a small number of cases, the evidence suggests that institutional admissions policies perpetuate the problem of working class disadvantage. The ability of HEIs to review and change their admissions policies is, however, constrained by the way government policy encourages a competitive and stratified system of higher education. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, but those wanting equality of opportunity in HE need to continue to put pressure on institutional policy makers to develop more inclusive systems of admission. Originality/value – By interviewing key institutional policy makers this article has been able to provide insights into the rationale behind HEI policy on admissions and widening participation.