A decision to use the "wrong statistic" to measure the success of Aimhigher contributed to the demise of the national widening participation scheme, an academic has claimed.
The scheme was discontinued last July after its funding was axed by the government.
The closure followed comments that David Willetts, the universities and science minister, made in 2008 while he was in opposition about the "rather disappointing record of Aimhigher", which he said had "not yet succeeded in spreading university opportunities on the scale that we might have hoped".
More than £500 million was spent on Aimhigher access initiatives between 2004 and 2008, including student mentoring, residential summer schools and campus visits. Funding had dropped to £78 million by its final year.
Universities are now required to undertake outreach activities themselves as part of their access agreements with the Office for Fair Access, and several regional partnerships have sprung up to try to fill the gap left by Aimhigher.
But many commentators, including the Higher Education Policy Institute, have criticised the government's decision to scrap the scheme.
Now Neil Harrison, senior research fellow in education at the University of the West of England, has argued that there was strong evidence for Aimhigher's success.
However, this was overlooked because the government used a flawed measurement tool when establishing Aimhigher in 2004, he said.
Without sufficient proof of the impact of the scheme, it was a prime candidate when the coalition government was looking to make deep cuts after gaining power in May 2010, he added.
In a paper presented to the Society for Research into Higher Education's annual conference last month, Mr Harrison says the decision to compare university admission rates for different social classes - children of professionals against children of manual or unskilled workers - ignored crucial elements of the scheme's work.
"It excluded students from benefit-dependent families, and Aim-higher was targeting those families," he told Times Higher Education.
"It was always going to miss some of those at the bottom of the social ladder whom Aimhigher worked with."
Data on pupils' socio-economic background was also unreliable, he added, because it was based primarily on what students wrote on their university application forms - with 25 per cent of all students omitting this information. As it was, progression rates of students from lower socio-economic groups rose from 11.2 per cent in 2004 to 13.7 per cent in 2008.
However, participation rates from students receiving free school meals rose more sharply - from 13 per cent in 2005 to 17 per cent in 2008.
"[Eligibility for] free school meals is now the chosen measure of participation," Mr Harrison added.
"It is almost the exact opposite of the old measure, which ignored children from benefit-dependent families. It seems we've gone from one extreme to the other."
A more reliable indicator of Aimhigher's success would have been the increase in applications - rather than admissions - from the poorest students, Mr Harrison argued.
For instance, the application rate among 18-year-olds from the 20 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods in England rose from 19.6 per cent in 2004 to 28.3 per cent in 2009, according to the latest official figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Since then, the rate has climbed further, to 31.7 per cent in 2010, Mr Harrison said.
"Aimhigher was busy increasing applications, but a lot of those people were not able to get university places," Mr Harrison explained.
"This was particularly true after 2009, when there was a big excess of demand over supply. Many of those people were muscled out of the market."
He added: "If Aimhigher was successful in raising applications by more than 50 per cent, it is difficult to see how it could have done better...It was also targeting children as young as 13, so many of these pupils have not even applied to university yet."
In a report published last summer, Hepi says that the decision to discontinue the scheme and use the money saved on a national scholarship programme was "not necessarily well founded".
"There is no basis for the government's conclusion that the new arrangements will be a better way of widening participation than the old ones," says the report, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System - An Analysis of the Higher Education White Paper.
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