There is general agreement across the political spectrum and throughout education in Scotland that ways must be found to enable more bright school leavers from poor backgrounds to go to university, especially the ancient universities which have a higher proportion of students from fee-paying schools.

Widening access has been a cornerstone of higher education policy for well over two decades. The latest move in this process is the Scottish Government's plan to place a statutory duty on universities to seek out talented pupils from schools who routinely send few pupils to higher education, with fines for those which do not meet the targets on widening access. It is a shot across the bows of the ancient universities, particularly Edinburgh and St Andrews, which still have a high proportion of students from privileged backgrounds and have struggled to increase the number from deprived corners of Scotland.

Universities Scotland, the body representing the principals, has replied with a challenge to the Education Secretary, Michael Russell, to ensure the school system enables children from more difficult backgrounds realise their full potential so they can meet the admissions criteria for the most demanding universities.

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Both have right on their sides. Scottish universities have long recognised they have a moral duty to provide higher education irrespective of students' background.

One of the thorniest problems facing university principals, however, is how to take account of the extra hurdles faced by pupils in schools where very few go on to university without increasing the drop-out rate because they have too far to catch up with their peers.

The Scottish Government is right to demand that further progress is made to widen access not only to provide equality of opportunity but because if Scotland is to maintain its place in the global, knowledge-based economy, it must maximise the educational potential of all its citizens.

Provided the targets for widening university access are realistic, they could accelerate a change that all parties agree is desirable. The anger and disappointment of the student bodies at St Andrews, Edinburgh and Aberdeen at their institutions' hostility to the targets is laudable. It demonstrates an awareness of their own privilege and a keenness to put right a grievous flaw in the university system.

Fines for those which fail to meet the targets, however, risks replacing one damaging approach with another. There is already a worryingly high drop-out rate of students from more deprived areas across all universities. On this evidence, what is required is more support for the summer schools for school pupils and extra tuition for students with less advanced qualifications some ancient universities are already providing.

A government committed to maintaining world-class universities open to all with ability should fund the extension of such positive moves before threatening fines.