On the face of it the news in the latest report from the Sutton Trust on university access is depressing.

The poor recent record of our leading universities in terms of opening up higher education to students from a wider range of backgrounds shows little sign of improvement. A young person from the most wealthy areas of Scotland - the least deprived 20 per cent - is still four times more likely to attend university than his or her peers in the most deprived 20 per cent.

This is a stark enough figure in itself, but all the worse for the fact that in Wales and Northern Ireland rich students are only three times more likely and in England 2.4 only times more likely to do a degree than poorer ones.

Loading article content

The figures are disappointing. But we should not ignore the fact that there has been a growth in the number of disadvantaged young people taking up higher education. It is just that 90 per cent of that growth has been through places provided by the college sector.

Colleges should be congratulated on this. Theirs is a success story and it seems clear that they are offering something attractive to students who might otherwise miss out. Some applicants may feel more comfortable starting out through colleges, and the so-called articulation route which offers guaranteed university places for those who can achieve the necessary grades at college is working well.

But it remains the case that the only truly significant progress which has been made by universities on widening access involved considerable additional investment in funding places specifically for those from non-traditional backgrounds.

The fact is our universities need to do considerably better. The Government's Commission on Fair Access set a target that a fifth of students should come from the 20% poorest areas by 2030. This can only be done with significant commitment and will inevitably entail a reduction in places for students from better off backgrounds - a controversial but necessary conclusion if we want to make Scottish education fairer.

The irony is that this effect is more marked in Scotland, where places are capped due to the lack of fees, than south of the border where it is easier to expand the numbers in the system. There is also an awkward comparison in levels of student debt - with Scotland the only part of the UK where those from a poorer background are likely to end up in more debt than those in other home countries.

We should not be surprised that the much debated attainment gap in schools is also reflected in our higher education system. The Scottish Government is prioritising improving the outcomes in schools.

Ministers must also put their money where their mouth is by continuing to fund extra university places for disadvantaged students.

The Government should also urgently address the lack of progress highlighted in this new report. A good start would be moving swiftly to appoint a promised independent Commissioner for Fair Access to oversee progress, encourage transparency and concentrate minds at universities, so they begin to deliver results as well as rhetoric on access.