Black and ethnic minority students are less likely to achieve the highest level of degree classification than their white counterparts, according to new figures.
A report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) found that 72% of white students who have grades BBB at A-level went on to gain a first or upper second class degree, compared to only 56% of Asian students and 53% of black students.
The figures also revealed that state school students tended to do better in their degrees than students from independent schools who entered university with the same A-level grades.
The findings come from an analysis of the ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background of 132,000 A-level students who entered university in 2007/08 and graduated in the summer of 2011.
Labour MP David Lammy said the issue of black students' under-performance needs to be prioritised by the Government and universities.
He said: "There are issues around aspiration, role models and very significant problems of retaining and promoting lecturers and professors from black and ethnic minority backgrounds (BME) we need to tackle. I think universities need to do a lot more to support students from these backgrounds make the transition from school to independent learning."
"If BME and white students start off at the same level, it is axiomatic that something is happening to both confidence and attainment as BME students grow into independent learning. We need and want them to succeed."
Aaron Kiely, national black students' officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), said the ethnic achievement gap reflected "institutional racism" in the higher education sector.
"Unfortunately we live in a society where many black people feel it is set up for them to fail. These figures are not surprising but they are a wake up call to higher education institutions and the Government. This is not an issue you can blame black students for; the blame lies with policy," said Mr Kiely.
The findings from HEFCE pre-date the introduction of the A* grade at A-level and do not include students entering university from academies or free schools.
The analysis also excludes students who opted for five-year courses such as medicine and dentistry and teenagers who sat qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate.
Over two-thirds of state school students, 63%, who achieved at least BBC grades at A-level, went on to achieve an upper second or higher compared to 53% of independent school pupils with the same level of achievement.
This difference in state school performance was present across the higher education sector, including at elite universities which require students to have higher grades before they are made an offer, according to HEFCE.
Professor Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of HEFCE and former vice-chancellor of Coventry University, said the findings were "interesting and disturbing" but it was not the job of the council to "tell universities how to run their admissions process".
Professor Atkins said: "The study presents a robust and independent set of findings to inform discussion and debate, and to stimulate action. Further work - by HEFCE, by the sector, and Government - will be needed to understand why these effects are happening and what sorts of interventions will be most effective in bringing about positive change."
Separate figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed yesterday that nearly nine in 10 of all undergraduate students in the UK were from the state sector, the highest proportion since the indicators were introduced.
Charlotte Vere, executive director of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) which represents the independent sector, said the use of school type as an indicator in degree performance was a "clunky instrument".
"The report also makes no account of the different types of higher education institutions. You could have a student at Oxford who is from an independent school but is on a bursary, because nearly a third of our students are not from rich families," said Ms Vere.
Ms Vere also said that the exclusion of medical and dentistry students meant that nearly a third of independent school pupils were not included in HEFCE's findings.
Chris Ramsey, headmaster of The King's School in Chester and co-chairman of the GSA/Headmaster's Conference Universities Committee, said: "We welcome research into attainment at higher education, but we agree with Alan Milburn: 'school type' is a misleading category in such research, because there are huge disparities of socio-economic circumstances among pupils in all kinds of school."
The findings were welcomed by the Sutton Trust, which aims to improve social mobility through education.
James Turner, Sutton Trust director of programmes, said: "Many of the world's leading universities - in the UK, US and elsewhere - recognise that it is much harder to excel academically in some schools than others, and they use contextual admissions to help recruit bright students from less advantaged backgrounds."
He added: "As this research suggests, it is also important that those from disadvantaged and minority ethnic backgrounds have the right support at university so that they stay the course and go on to get good degrees."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the elite Russell Group of universities, said: "Russell Group universities take a range of factors into account when deciding which students are offered a place. So the candidate's qualifications are considered in a broader 'context'. The bottom line is we want to give places to the pupils with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed."