The higher education regulator for England has set challenging new widening access targets requiring universities to rethink how merit is judged in admissions. Universities are being encouraged to move away from the traditional meritocratic equality of opportunity model of fair access, which holds that university places should go to the most highly qualified candidates irrespective of social background, in accordance with the principles of procedural fairness. Instead, they are being asked to move towards what we term the meritocratic equity of opportunity model, which holds that prospective students’ qualifications should be judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which these were obtained to enhance distributive fairness, a practice known in the UK as contextualised admissions. In this paper, we critically discuss the theoretical underpinnings of these two competing perspectives on fair access and review the existing empirical evidence base, drawing together for the first time insights from our ESRC and Nuffield Foundation funded studies of fair access to highly academically selective universities in England. We argue that reconceptualising fair access in terms of distributive fairness rather than procedural fairness offers a more socially just set of principles on which to allocate valuable but scarce places at the most academically selective universities in England, unless or until such time as the vertical stratification of higher education institutions is reduced or eliminated entirely.