SCOTLAND'S oldest university has hit back at suggestions the higher education sector "prefers" fee-paying students from England over those from Scotland.

St Andrews University said the claim was "incorrect" after the Scottish Conservatives Party said universities were being forced into "tough choices” and that home students were "losing out".

Liz Smith, the party's education spokeswoman said: "We have known for some time, from what we have been told by parents and schools, that some of the brightest pupils in Scotland are finding it very much tougher to get in to top universities.

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"The root cause is the SNP’s very divisive and discriminatory higher education funding policy which, together with the mandatory capping system, is forcing universities into very tough choices. Not surprisingly, there is a growing preference for students who will pay fees."

However, St Andrews said no English or overseas student could ever "displace" a Scottish student at a Scottish university.

A spokesman said: "To suggest that universities may choose or prefer fee-paying English and international students over Scots is wrong and irresponsible.

"The number of Scottish students at St Andrews and every other Scottish university is determined solely by the Scottish Government which funds these places. These places are ring-fenced for Scots. Universities cannot recruit above or below that strictly set limit of Scottish students or they are fined.

"There is no cap, however, on the numbers of rest of UK or international students which universities can admit, and the sector has been encouraged and supported to attract as many of these students as possible for the additional income they bring and the myriad ways they enrich our universities culturally and socially."

The row erupted after figures showed some of Scotland's ancient universities are increasingly targeting fee-paying students from England to boost their finances.

The universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews have all given offers to a higher percentage of applicants from England compared to those from Scotland. The same is true of the universities of Stirling and Strathclyde.

However, despite the difference in offer rates Scottish universities still recruit far more students from Scotland than from south of the Border with 33,000 in 2015 compared to just 4,560 from England.