UNIVERSITIES have cautioned against a blanket approach to lowering entry grades for poorer students to widen access.

Institutions said the policy of offering disadvantaged students “adjusted offers” was successful when decisions were made on an individual basis.

The intervention came after a report by academics from Durham University suggested top universities should drop entry requirements by up to five grades to widen the potential pool of candidates.

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A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland also stressed the importance of providing support to students admitted with lower grades because of the greater risk of drop-out.

She said: “We want our retention rates to keep improving and will look closely at the retention thresholds used in the report.

“Some universities are already adjusting grades to help widen access and have found this works well where decisions are made on an individual basis and where additional support is in place to help students succeed.”

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party, issued a warning over the preservation of academic standards.

She said: “Scottish universities punch above their weight in international standings because they have a long tradition of academic excellence.

“There is a place for contextualised entry, but it must not be at the expense of diminishing academic rigour. It would be better if the focus was on helping schools to narrow the attainment gap.”

However, Jodie Waite, a spokeswoman for student body NUS Scotland, called for universities to do more on access.

She said: "We have long argued that we need to look beyond traditional methods of selecting applicants and this research shows that changing access thresholds means students from the most deprived backgrounds can thrive wherever they choose to study."

The Durham University report, commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council, recommended that top Scottish universities should to dramatically lower entry grades for students from poorer backgrounds.

In what would amount to an unprecedented overhaul of university enrolment, academics said elite institutions such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews should drop entry requirements to five "B" grades at Higher for top courses such as medicine, law, accountancy, science and mathematics.

The current benchmark for the most competitive degrees can often be five "A" grades at Higher with scope for only two grades to be lowered for bright students from poorer backgrounds - so-called adjusted offers.

Academics said it would still be possible for students to secure a degree even with the significantly lower entry requirements and the impact would be to double the pool of eligible candidates from deprived communities.

The report states: "The evidence suggests that a high probability of progression from year one to year two of an undergraduate degree programme can be achieved with Higher grades of BBBBB at highly selective higher education institutions.

"The evidence presented also indicates that a high probability of a first or upper second class degree can be achieved with Higher grades of ABBBB/BBBCC for science/arts programmes at highly selective universities.

"Employing more ambitious adjusted offers for disadvantaged applicants and advertising the fact would likely increase applications from such students."

The report also calls on universities to step up the work they do to support students from poorer backgrounds as they progress through their courses.

It adds: "It is important to recognise that disadvantaged students are likely to need additional learning support if they are to fulfil their potential at degree level."

Widening access is a key priority of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but figures published earlier this year showed a decline in the proportion of young students from the poorest backgrounds accepted by many of Scotland 18 higher education institutions.

Eleven universities saw a drop in the percentage of undergraduates under the age of 21 accepted in 2015/16 compared to the previous year including Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Part of the problem is that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend not to do as well in school exams as those from the middle classes and can find it difficult to enter higher education - which is highly competitive.

However, the policy of adjusted offers is controversial because a consequence is the displacement of middle class students with higher grades unless the Scottish Government funds an expansion of higher education.

The Scottish Government has set a target for one fifth of students entering higher education by 2030 to be from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived communities.