Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Wrong Statistic' Blamed for Aimhigher's Fall

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Wrong Statistic' Blamed for Aimhigher's Fall

Article excerpt

Axed scheme had a wider reach than it was given credit for, attests academic. Jack Grove writes.

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 Pounds 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 Pounds 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. …

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