Fair access to Scotland's universities 'decades away' says NUS
It will take 40 years to achieve a fair balance of rich and poor students at Scottish universities, according to new research.
A report by the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland said urgent action must be taken to widen access.
It also said, despite tuition fees, universities in England were more successful at attracting poor students.
It found Scotland's older universities were still lagging behind in recruiting pupils from deprived backgrounds.
However, the Unlocking Scotland's Potential report also suggested that schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland were succeeding in sending a good number of pupils to university.Worst record
NUS Scotland released figures last month showing low levels of students from poorer backgrounds at some institutions.
The figures were compiled using the government's Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD).
Students were classed as coming from a deprived background if they grew up in one of the least affluent 20% of postcode districts.
End Quote Robin Parker President, NUS Scotland
Our report shows that our universities are clearly missing out on people with huge potential from our most deprived communities”
The new report goes into more detail and looks at the issue of fair access.
There has been a 1% increase in the proportion of students at university from the 20% most deprived backgrounds in Scotland over the past five years - from 10.6% in 2005/06 to 11.6% in 2010/11.
Based on this rate, the report said it would take another 40 years to reach a point where 19.6% of the university population was from the 20% most deprived backgrounds.
The study also found that at the universities which have the worst record on widening access - Aberdeen, Edinburgh and St Andrews - for every one person from a deprived background there are more than 16 people from privileged backgrounds.
NUS Scotland has called for the Scottish Parliament to introduce enforceable widening access agreements, and for Scottish universities to "hugely scale-up" schemes aimed at attracting less advantaged students.'Outperforming'
Robin Parker, NUS Scotland president, said: "Universities can't do it all when it comes to fair access, but they can clearly do a great deal more.
"Scotland needs people with the most potential to get places at our universities.
"Our report shows that our universities are clearly missing out on people with huge potential from our most deprived communities."
The report did praise some schemes already in place in Scotland and urged universities to learn from, and build on, these.
It also highlighted examples of best practice in England where a number of elite institutions have introduced alternative admissions schemes allowing entry to poorer students with lower grades.
The report said often these students then go on to at least match, if not out-perform, students with higher grades from less deprived backgrounds.
Mr Parker added: "The most positive thing out of the report is that we know what works, and it highlights best practice at some universities which has seen students from poorer backgrounds, even those with lower grades, outperform those from better off backgrounds.
"Achieving fair access is therefore not about some kind of social engineering or charity, it's about getting the best people into our precious university places."
A Scottish government spokesman said: "Progress has been made on widening access. And, of course, education is, and will remain, free in Scotland.
"However, we want to pick up the pace and do even more to ensure no talent is wasted or no young person is left behind in Scotland."
He said the government would publish proposals for widening access agreements in its forthcoming Post-16 education bill.