A £1.8 MILLION scheme to increase the number of Scottish students from deprived areas entering professions which are traditionally the preserve of the middle class has been attacked for a lack of ambition.

The scheme, which funds widening access projects at universities including Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and St Andrews, will result in only a handful of additional students being recruited from under-represented groups.

Figures obtained by The Herald show the three-year Access to the Professions project will see just 23 extra medical students recruited per year from the 40% most deprived areas in Scotland.

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The initiative will also deliver only 29 additional lawyers, six architects, five vets and three dentists annually across Scotland from the target areas.

Overall, the number of Scottish students from deprived areas entering professional courses will rise by 5%, from 170 out of a student cohort of 1558 to 240 – some 15% of the total number.

A report by the Scottish Funding Council, which is overseeing the scheme, said that with "even participation" officials would expect to see 40% of those participating to be from the 40% most deprived areas.

It said: "We can see that participation is currently mostly well below 20% and often below 10%, establishing the extent of the widening access challenge faced."

The figures come at a difficult time for universities, which are under pressure to make courses more accessible to a wider social mix.

Earlier this month, The Herald revealed some universities had been recruiting tiny numbers of students from the poorest backgrounds.

St Andrews University – where Prince William studied – recruited only 13 students from the most deprived backgrounds in Scotland in 2010/11.

The second lowest proportion was at Aberdeen University, with 51, followed by Edinburgh University, with 91.

The Scottish Government has already announced plans to give universities binding targets on access, with the threat of financial penalties for those that fail.

And last week, Education Secretary Michael Russell hit out at elite Scottish universities, saying some had done "very poorly" on access.

Last night, Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, called for greater efforts.

He said: "With record amounts of public money going to universities it's crucial that, in return, they are pushed to do more to attract talented people from poorer backgrounds.

"The Access to the Professions scheme could be crucial in ensuring that Scotland's professions reflect Scotland's society, but we need to remember the numbers we're dealing with are tiny, especially compared with the tens of thousands of students these institutions teach each year.

"The numbers involved are a drop in the ocean compared to how far they need to go in making the professions more representative."

Gordon Watson, president of lecturers' union UCU Scotland, described the project as "modest" in scope, but said it could show the way forward.

He said: "We believe universities must do more to recruit from a broad background of Scottish students and we hope this limited funding will help show the brightest pupils can compete with their peers no matter their background."

However, universities argue they are trying hard to widen access, but low participation is a much more complex issue than simply encouraging school-leavers to apply.

St Andrews said this week that only two or three out of every 100 school-leavers from Scotland's most deprived areas were getting good enough grades to win places at elite universities.

It believes the greatest barrier for children from deprived areas is long-term poverty and a lack of educational and social support from a very early age.

A Scottish Funding Council spokesman said: "The project is about supporting a small, but statistically significant number of academically able candidates to make viable applications to the target degrees."