An £87 million-a-year government drive to encourage more disadvantaged students to go to university may have been "set up to fail," it was claimed this week.
Research due to be presented this week at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education questions the guidelines used to target money for the Aimhigher initiative and their focus on the most deprived communities.
Guidance issued last year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England says resources should be targeted at learners with the "potential to benefit" from higher education who were "from lower socio-economic groups and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in areas of relative deprivation where participation in higher education is low".
But an analysis of the South West of England found that the low-participation, high-deprivation criteria located only a quarter of households in the lowest socio-economic groups. Three quarters of the region's poorest homes were excluded.
Neil Harrison, senior research fellow at the University of the West of England, said the criteria led to a disproportionate focus on large areas of "deep-rooted" urban deprivation, where it may be the most difficult to have a measurable impact.
They neglect neighbourhoods of either high deprivation or low participation, and pockets of poverty within affluent communities. In such "mixed" areas, there might be a more realistic chance of making a difference in the short term because students have access to schools with better GCSE results, diverse post-16 provision and links to middle-class communities, Mr Harrison argued.
He said funding for Aimhigher beyond 2011 would depend at least partly on demonstrable progress in raising attainment and participation.
The need to tackle deprivation was "unquestionable", but it was uncertain that access efforts could do this "alone and without stronger connection to other initiatives", according to the analysis, co-authored by Sue Hatt, Aimhigher's South West regional manager.
"Aimhigher is asked to focus on the most deprived areas, but the guidance makes it clear it will be evaluated on its contribution to narrowing the social class gap. This dissonance is unfortunate and could result in Aimhigher being 'set up to fail'," according to the research.
Stuart Billingham, chair of the Aimhigher area partnership committee for North Yorkshire, said there were "genuine tensions" between some measures of deprivation and participation that should not be ignored. He said his partnership had "taken to heart" Hefce's message that the guidance should be approached flexibly and pragmatically.
John Selby, Hefce's director of education and participation, said the guidance had been agreed by a task force from education and local government and welcomed by universities and Aimhigher partnerships.
STATISTICS MAY NOT REFLECT 'HIDDEN' ACCOMPLISHMENTS
A rise in the number of students whose socio-economic status is classed as "unknown" could represent a "hidden success" for efforts to widen participation, new research suggests.
Students applying for university or college via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service are asked to give the occupation of their parent or guardian with the highest income. The information is used to help monitor which social groups are entering higher education. However, the proportion of undergraduates whose socio-economic background is classed as "unknown" has risen from 8 per cent in 1991 to 26 per cent in 2007.
Neil Harrison, senior research fellow in the School of Education at the University of the West of England, analysed 1,000 "unknowns" who were accepted on to courses in 2007-08. He found that about a third had said their parents were not working or had not answered the question. A look at more background data, including information on students' schools, showed that this group was "very likely" to be "the precise targets for widening-participation initiatives" even though it did not show up in the Government's statistics.