According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), the number of full-time or part-time undergraduates enrolling fell from 62,175 in 2010-11 to 58,090 in 2011-12.
The number of part-time students fell by 14 per cent year on year. The number of full-time students fell by 3 per cent.
The figures, which include both UK and foreign students, are for the last academic year, so do not reflect changes as a result of new higher-rate tuition fees introduced in September.
Despite the decrease in student numbers, there was a 3 per cent rise in EU students and a 9 per cent rise in international students from outside the EU.
Yesterday’s figures also showed a 5 per cent increase in the number of students completing their first degree, up from 31,780 to 33,000.
Meanwhile, the number of students graduating with a first-class degree across the UK as a whole has more than doubled in ten years, with one in six now gaining top honours.
Graeme Kirkpatrick, vice-president education for the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland, said: “We need to watch the drop in enrolment of first-year undergraduates students, particularly those in part-time study, who often come from the poorest backgrounds.
“Later this year we will see tuition fees for the poorest part-time students abolished, which will remove a huge barrier to those from more deprived communities attending university. We, therefore, hope to see a reversal of this drop.”
Labour education spokesman Hugh Henry said the rising number of EU students, who have their tuition paid by the Scottish Government, was creating a “ticking timebomb”.
“This increase in EU students means more subsidies from the Scottish budget, resulting in cuts elsewhere,” he said. “If Scotland decides to separate from the UK, the costs of free tuition for EU students will rocket to over £225 million as students from the rest of the UK become eligible for free tuition here.
“It looks like this SNP government is prepared to inflict savage cuts on essential services in order to provide free tuition to European students. This is a ticking timebomb which will inflict untold damage on public services in Scotland.”
A record 61,600 graduates left UK universities with a first last summer, with the numbers soaring in the past five years. There has also been a rise in students with an upper-second.
Carl Gilleard, head of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), said the 200-year-old degree classification system was at risk. “Over three-quarters of AGR members require graduates to have at least a 2:1, yet it is widely accepted that the degree classification system is barely fit for purpose,” he said.
But education secretary Mike Russell said: “It is good news that a record number of people achieved a university-level qualification last year.”