It was a policy designed to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who did not traditionally go to university were helped up the ladder to higher education.

But now it has emerged that one of Scotland’s oldest universities has been allowed to drop the 10 per cent recruitment target for young people from the poorest postcodes as its main recruitment area in the north-east is too wealthy.

The Scottish Funding Council has set the University of Aberdeen a target of 8% for recruitment from the 20% of poorer areas by 2021, below that agreed with other institutions.

In recent years the university has recruited only between 4% and 5% of students from the 20% of poorer postcodes areas, referred to as the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 20 (SIMD20) – largely due to the very low proportion classified as such in its traditional recruitment area.

The Scottish Government wants one in five university students to come from the poorest areas by 2030.

Currently, only the University of the West of Scotland and Glasgow Caledonian University have reached this target, while Edinburgh University said 11% of its new undergraduate students this year were from the most deprived parts of Scotland.

To help increase this figure, Edinburgh announced  it will use this year’s clearing process to award places to those from deprived areas.

The most recent national statistics which are available show that in 2016/17, 14.2% of Scottish university students came from SIMD20 areas.

Watchdogs want universities to pay less attention to exam results and more to the candidate’s own experience and potential – so-called “contextualised admissions”.

This is in response to the view that it is easier for children from affluent backgrounds to get the passes required for some courses because of parental help, private tuition or the culture at particular schools.

However, there has been criticism of using SIMD20 areas as a standard, with Universities Scotland – the body which represents all 19 of Scotland’s educational institutions – saying its was an “inadequate” guide when determining whether a student came from a deprived background.

Earlier this year, Dr Elisabet Weedon, deputy director of the Centre for Research in Education, Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh, said that relying on SIMD data posed regional problems and could result in disabled students and care-experienced students being excluded. 

Writing in Holyrood magazine, she said: “There’s a danger that you forget that there are different types of impairments and different social backgrounds of those students. I think that’s a big challenge, that we need to look more deeply at the differences between students.”

Despite facing a lower benchmark for participation from students of less well-off backgrounds, University of Aberdeen has pledged to meet the 10%  target by next year.

University bosses plan to introduce a number of measures to help it surpass the 8% target two years ahead of schedule, including a plan to provide more places for students from widening access backgrounds.

The university will also accept applications from SIMD20 students after the UCAS deadline of January 15.

Funding will be made available to assist applicants and offer-holders with travel costs to the university’s recruitment activities and events, such as Open Day or Articulation Day.

The university will continue to offer free accommodation for the first year of study for students from SIMD20 areas.

University Principal George Boyne said: “This university was founded on the guiding principle of being open to all, and it is for this reason that we have set this ambitious new target to recruit 10% of our Scottish students from SIMD20 areas, from September 2019.

“Our commitment to widening access to higher education has resulted in a number of initiatives to open up pathways to university for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, however, we undoubtedly face unique challenges here in the north-east, which I was pleased to discuss with the minister during today’s visit. Despite these challenges, our new target provides a renewed impetus to our widening access activities, which I consider to be a priority area for the university.

“Along with the introduction of several new measures – including our plan to promote more opportunities for students from SIMD20 backgrounds through clearing  this is a significant step in our journey towards greater inclusion.”

Richard Lochhead, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Further Education, took part in a discussion with Mr Boyne yesterday which covered the challenges faced by the university in attracting students from widening access backgrounds.

Mr Lochhead, said: “I welcome the University of Aberdeen’s commitment to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to this impressive institution. The Scottish Government wants every young person in Scotland to have an equal chance of success, no matter their background or circumstance. It is our aim that, by 2030, 20% of students entering university will be from Scotland’s most deprived backgrounds.

“Widening access initiatives, such as the work announced by the University of Aberdeen today, provide the opportunity for young people to fulfil their potential at university.”