The number of Scots from the most deprived backgrounds who are studying full-time for degrees has risen to a record high, official figures have revealed.
A total of 15.6 per cent of students entering universities in Scotland were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas north of the Border in 2017/18, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) found.
But opposition parties warned that the cap on Scottish students - whose fees are paid for by the Government - was still restricting the options of high-achieving school leavers.
Holyrood ministers have set a target of ensuring at least 20 per cent of students at Scottish universities are from the most deprived backgrounds by 2030.
Last year also saw an increase in the total number of Scottish students enrolling for degree courses.
“These statistics highlight the good progress being made on widening access to higher education,” said higher education minister Richard Lochhead.
“Combined with recent UCAS statistics, this shows progress towards giving every young person in Scotland an equal chance of success, no matter their background or circumstance.
“It is also great to see a record number of enrolments and an increased number of qualifications achieved in 2017/18. All of this speaks to the level of excellence found across our higher education institutions.”
Year-on-year, the total Scottish domiciled students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, studying at higher education institutions (HEIs) in Scotland, increased by 1.2 per cent to 160,875.
The overall number of students at Scottish HEIs increased by 2.1 per cent to 247,110 in the same period, with a 5.2 per cent rise in students from outwith the EU.
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative’s education spokeswoman, said: “It is encouraging to see some movement on the numbers of students from deprived areas going to university, and that Scotland is improving its position in this regard when compared to other parts of the UK.
“The serious problem which remains however, is the SNP’s student cap which prevents an increasing number of high-achieving Scots from becoming undergraduates Scottish universities, even when some places exist.
“That is unfair as well as damaging to the economy when there are shortages in key areas of graduate employment.”
Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland said there had been a 20 per cent increase over five years in students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, adding it was “proof that we are a sector that lives up to its values”.
He continued: “In addition to our success on widening access, it’s welcome to see increase in enrolments at all age groups as well as rises in the number of students enrolling who disclose a disability and from a minority ethnic background. Our universities reflect the diverse communities they serve. This is good news for universities and wider Scottish society too.”