TARGETS for universities to recruit more students from poorer backgrounds are setting institutions against each other in the battle to fulfill their individual quotas, a report warns.

Ministers want all universities to focus on widening access to disadvantaged students and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has set tough targets to ensure progress is made.

However, Universities Scotland, which represents principals, argues new, broader regional targets would encourage greater collaboration between nearby competing institutions.

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A report by the body states: "Higher education institutions will explore the potential of introducing regional widening access targets to encourage collaboration. We believe there is potential benefit in models that encourage institutions to work together to widen access.

"Currently the targets and measurements in the Scottish Funding Council’s Outcome Agreement framework are at national or individual institution level.

"This can push institutions into competition for the same students and can work against collaborative action to widen access to higher education for under-represented groups."

The body said a regional view would allow institutions to take different approaches to widening access and called for a dialogue with the SFC to remove "financial and administrative barriers" - such as fines for those that miss targets.

It concludes: "Universities will need to define for themselves and with each other what they consider a region or whether they are part of one."

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, but figures from earlier this year show the overall proportion at universities is just over ten per cent. The figures are lower for Scotland's Ancient universities such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews.

As part of the drive to improve the situation the Scottish Government established a commission which made a series of recommendations including plans for all universities to drop entry grades for poorer students.

The Universities Scotland report Working to Widen Access, which is a response to the commission's recommendations, said all institutions were committed to lowering entry grades, but it would not provide a guarantee of entry.

The report also indicate that the sector does not intend to provide a common set of minimum entry requirements, but will develop them on a course by course basis.

The report states: "Meeting minimum entry requirements won’t always guarantee an offer to higher education because there are often more applicants than there are places available.

"Universities’ judgement therefore has to be at the heart of this, as it is the applicant and the university that have the relationship going forward.

"Entry requirements will continue to be something that each institution sets individually. Some courses are exceptionally demanding and require high levels of prior attainment.

"Greater consistency will be achieved by the fact that every university will clearly set out its standard and its minimum entry requirements."

The report said in "exceptional circumstances" institutions could make offers even below their published minimum entry requirements.

Every Scottish higher education institution will set minimum entry requirements for their courses in 2019 for entrants starting in 2020/21.

The report also called on the Scottish Government to introduce a unique number for learners to allow tracking of students as they progress.

Other pledges by the sector include a review to ensure students moving from college course to university degrees are not held back by having to repeat years.

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party, welcomed the commitment to greater clarity and transparency around university admissions policy - but said improving school grades was key.

She said: "It is essential that all applicants, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, know exactly what will be required of them as they make that application.

"At the end of the day, the success of the widening access policy will largely depend on whether there is sufficient focus on raising attainment in schools."

Martin Fairbairn, chief operating officer of the SFC, said: "The actions the report sets out are helpful and we will continue to work with Universities Scotland to support their success in this crucial area.

"This includes working with institutions to assess how a new regional approach might best supplement the existing institutional targets for increasing university admissions for people from more deprived backgrounds."

Commenting on the Universities Scotland report, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said: “This government has made it a priority to ensure every child has an equal chance to go to university.

"The Widening Access Commission’s Blueprint for Fairness made clear that achieving this would need government, universities, colleges and the wider public sector to act in the short term to address current approaches and policies as well as in the longer term, to introduce system wide change.

"We all welcomed the Blueprint recommendations and this government is determined to make the rapid progress to widen access, so that we meet our ambitious target for 20% of entrants to higher education to come from the 20% most deprived backgrounds by 2030.

“I welcome Universities Scotland’s report. It moves us forward in our shared agenda to widen access. I am particularly pleased that universities will now act to ensure that every young person with experience of care who meets minimum entry requirements will be offered a university place.

“But I am concerned that the report’s recommendations will not allow universities to meet the timescales and policy challenges contained in the Widening Access Commission’s Final Report.

"I look forward to discussing the recommendations with all the members of the Access Delivery Group when we meet next week. I will be particularly keen to discuss how we can pick up the pace of change and how we might also ensure that the ideas and analysis being provided by Scotland’s Fair Access Commissioner on key issues are reflected in recommendations for change."