Poorer youngsters in England are twice as likely to make it to university as their Scottish counterparts, an official has report today found.
The Universities UK report found that 16.9% of its students going to university in 2013 came from the least wealthy backgrounds - compared with 8.8% in Scotland. Youngsters north of the border are also lagging behind Northern Ireland (15.8%) and Wales (14.1%).
The situation is also improving much faster in England with the latest figures up by 7% since 2004 - compared with a 3% rise in Scotland.
The SNP has maintained free university education in Scotland since coming to power and scrapped the graduate endowment, while students in England face fees of up to £27,000. But a report by Edinburgh University experts this week has failed to get poorer students into university and “embedded social inequality”.
It has also emerged that student bursaries in Scotland have fallen by £40 million in recent years to just over £60 million.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson challenged Nicola Sturgeon on the issue at First Minister’s Questions today.
“The SNP claims its policy on no tuition fees helps those from the poorest backgrounds,” Ms Davidson said.
“Now that experts have dismissed this, she has to face up to the facts. Not only are those people from the most deprived areas not getting their foot through the door, but their bursary support has fallen too.
“How can she explain to them that when the SNP came to power there was more than £104 million in the pot, but next year it will have plummeted to just £60 million?
“The SNP is slashing college places and has cut bursaries – and now the universal free tuition policy designed to counter those things has been shown not to work.”
Ms Sturgeon insisted that the funding support package provided in Scotland helps youngsters get into college and university.
She expressed her “disbelief” that the Tories would raise the issue of bursaries - after Chancellor George Osborne scrapped these for students south of the border in last week’s spending review.
“I’ll take no lectures whatsoever when it comes to student support from the Conservative party or from Ruth Davidson,” the First Minister said.
“The number of people from our most deprived communities achieving a university qualification has increased under the SNP Government by 24%, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs. In addition the number of 18-year-olds applying to university is up 50%.
“Young people from our most deprived areas are more likely now to participate in Higher education by the age of 30 than they were in 2006,” she said.
Official figures also indicate that Scotland is reducing the “attainment gap” at university faster than any other part of the UK.