MINISTERS are coming under pressure to reverse cuts to bursaries which have left the poorest university students facing more debt.

Academics, student leaders and politicians have urged the SNP to use this week's Scottish Budget to address the controversial reductions. The cuts mean annual grants to the poorest students have been reduced by nearly £1,000, while those on middle incomes saw a drop of £1,200.

The call comes after figures from the Student Loan Company published in July showed student debt rose more sharply in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK in 2013/14.

The rise followed a decision in 2012 by Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, to reduce grants for thousands of poor and middle income students as part of an expansion of loans to cover living costs.

Critics argue the policy is unfair and will act as a deterrent to talented pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU lecturers' union, said: "Bursaries play a critical role in making sure students from the poorest backgrounds go to and stay in higher education.

"The Scottish Government needs to properly fund sufficient bursaries so that they are available to those that need them."

Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, also backed a change of heart by the Scottish Government. He said: "As we look ahead, for the poorest students particularly, we need to start addressing the burden of debt once they graduate.

"Through the upcoming Scottish budget, we'll be pushing hard for increased grants for the poorest students."

At the time, Mr Russell argued the biggest deterrent to students was the cost of living rather than debt, with the issue being addressed by access to more loans. He also stressed the SNP's policy of free tuition means Scottish students avoid the significant debts faced by students south of the Border who pay fees of up to £9,000 a year.

However, the policy runs counter to previous statements by the SNP that they wanted to "dump" student debt and introduce more grants.

Politicians urged Finance Secretary John Swinneyto reverse the cut as he sets out his spending plans for Scotland in Thursday's Budget.

Kezia Dugdale, education spokeswoman for Scottish Labour, said: "One of our biggest challenges is in ensuring that young people from the poorest backgrounds are able to seize the opportunities of education.

"The Scottish Government must confront the fact Scotland has the worst record on widening access, the highest drop-out rates and the worst student support for the poorest students in any of the four home nations. This budget presents an opportunity to confront these challenges."

Liz Smith, young people spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, added: "Expanding university bursary funding is hugely important if we are to ensure more university places are available for those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds."

Meanwhile, the SNP highlighted research from the Scottish Parliament's information centre which found tuition fees of £9,000 have cost students in the rest of the UK £14 billion in the past three years.

The research also found Scottish students studying at Scottish universities - who do not pay tuition fees - saved £1 billion over the same period.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Aside from providing 120,000 students with free tuition, students from the least well-off families can access a guaranteed annual minimum income of £7500 through a combination of bursaries and loans.

"Scotland continues to have the lowest level of average student loan debt for students in the UK and the simplified student support package, launched in 2012, puts more money into their pockets. At the time, NUS Scotland described the package as the best in the UK."