ALL Scottish universities should consider accepting poorer pupils with significantly lower grades than middle class applicants to address a "fundamental unfairness" in the system, according to a new government-backed commission.

Instead of being detrimental to the principle of academic excellence, as some fear, the move to support students from less affluent backgrounds would enhance excellence, an interim report concludes.

Growing evidence, it said, suggested pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower entry grades did just as well as other students if given the appropriate support.

The initial findings of the Commission on Widening Access, set up by the Scottish Government, will be seen as a wake-up call to the higher education sector which may eventually face moves to compel it do more to widen access.

The commission, which is chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, was set up by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in November after concerns initiatives to improve access to university were not making sufficient progress.

Although numbers have improved in recent years just 1,335 school-leavers from the poorest 20 per cent of households went to university in Scotland in 2013/14 compared to 5,520 from the richest 20 per cent of communities.

In universities such as St Andrews, Aberdeen and Edinburgh less than than five per cent of their intake comes from the poorest communities.

The commission is expected to present its final report with recommendations to ministers in the coming months.

Its interim report said: "It is sometimes suggested admitting students from deprived backgrounds with lower grades could have a detrimental impact on the principle of academic excellence.

"We understand Scotland’s universities have first-class reputations that are founded on academic excellence and we wish to see this continue and grow.

"However, there is increasingly strong evidence that, with the right support, bright students from deprived backgrounds can enhance, rather than jeopardise, academic excellence."

The report said critics were concerned such moves would undermine academic excellence and displace middle class students, but stressed others saw it as levelling an unfair playing field with displacement of middle class students a "necessary consequence" of achieving equality.

The report was welcomed by Angela Constance, the Education Secretary, who said good progress had been made in recent years, but more needed to be done.

She said: "That is why we have asked the commission to take forward this important work, alongside our focused efforts to deliver sustained improvements through early learning and in school attainment."

Vonnie Sandlan, president of national student body NUS Scotland, backed the call for a shake-up of entry requirements.

She said: "A wealth of evidence suggests attainment alone isn’t the only, or even best, way to judge potential students and we have to question what purpose entry requirements serve and how our universities are using them.

"Entry requirements can’t simply exist as a means for universities to limit demand or sift applications without taking a closer look at potential."

HeraldScotland:

Vonnie Sandlan

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said the sector already considered applications based on potential as well as talent.

She said: "Contextual admissions can help with this and it is one of many tools, but definitely not a silver bullet, that universities can use to help widen access.

"Universities will always look for the best and brightest applicants - our quality and excellence is very important to us and absolutely will not be compromised - but we are open-minded about what best and brightest actually means."

The interim report concluded that Scotland’s world-class university sector was a precious national asset, but the evidence is unequivocal that it disproportionately benefits those in the most affluent communities.

It stated: "Unless we are prepared to accept the notion that Scotland’s talent is concentrated in its most affluent communities, it is clear that, through accident of birth, a whole section of Scottish society has nothing like an equal opportunity to maximise their talent and reap the benefits of higher education."

On the issue of lowering entry grades the commission report said evidence showed students who had achieved lower grades performed just as well as their peers.

It said St Andrews University had found it was possible for an attainment gap of up to four grades to be overcome "without any detrimental impact on academic standards".

And it concluded: "It is therefore worth exploring whether all universities should develop a robust contextual admissions policy. Institutions will typically adjust entry tariffs by around one or two grades.

"However..... with the provision of strong support, it is possible to adjust tariffs by a substantially higher margin without impinging upon academic standards."