THE amount of debt facing Scottish university students from the poorest backgrounds is continuing to rise, new figures show.

According to the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) average bursary support for those from the lowest income households decreased from £1,700 in 2015/16 to £1,680.

Overall, the average amount of loan and bursary support to these students increased to £7,970, but debt is growing because of the shift from bursaries to loans.

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As a result the poorest students are taking the highest loans at £5,920 per year, compared to £4,640 for the richest students.

For a student on a four year degree, this would accumulate to over £23,500 of debt.

Luke Humberstone, president of student body NUS Scotland, called for “root and branch” reform of the financial support available to students - especially for those from the poorest backgrounds.

He said: “It’s particularly concerning to see a drop in the average bursary going to students in the lowest income bracket, while the amount of loan going to those students continues to rise.

“There’s growing consensus that a system that sees the poorest students take on the most debt is unsustainable.”

Mr Humberstone backed the Scottish Government free tuition policy, but said increasing uptake of loans to meet living costs meant average graduate debt was reaching record highs.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister, said: “I very much welcome these figures, which show this government is investing a record amount in student support.

“We are also seeing more students from the most-deprived backgrounds entering higher education.”

The Scottish Government said almost 3,000 additional students qualified for a non-repayable bursary or saw their funding increase as a result of the income threshold being raised from £17,000 to £19,000 last year.

However, political opponents attacked the Scottish Government’s record on student support.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “These figures show again that too much of the student support package is weighted towards loans rather than grants and bursaries.

“Rather than abolish student debt as the SNP promised, they are saddling the poorest students with even more.

“This SNP government has slashed grants and bursaries which forces students to turn to higher loans.”

Tavish Scott, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, added: “These figures are troubling, particularly for students from lower-income backgrounds.

“The SNP were elected on a commitment to replace loans with grants and to “dump the debt”.

“These statistics confirm the very opposite has happened. Student debt has soared and bursaries and grants have been decimated.”

Overall, the figures show the amount of financial support paid to students by the Scottish Government has risen to record levels.

Some 143,000 students received support in 2016/17, up from 141,000 the previous year.

In total, £835 million was paid in bursaries and grants, fees or authorised in loans for the 2016/17 session, an increase of 3.6 per cent from 2015/16, when it was £805.8m. Average support in 2016/17 was £5,830.

The Scottish Government has commissioned an independent review of student support which will report later this year.