SCOTTISH universities have the worst student drop-out rates in the UK, new figures show.

Some eight per cent of students leave their university course before the start of the second year compared to a UK average of 7.2 per cent.

Some of the highest drop-out rates are concentrated in newer universities which take greater numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The highest drop-out rates were at the University of the Highlands and Islands and the University of the West of Scotland which both had drop-out rates of more than 14 per cent.

The universities of Abertay, Robert Gordon and Queen Margaret all had higher drop-out rates than the Scottish average. The lowest drop-out rates were at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and St Andrews University.

The figures have prompted concerns that moves to widen access in Scotland are not being accompanied by sufficient support.

Students from non-traditional backgrounds are more likely to drop out because of financial concerns and lack of support from families who have little experience of university.

In England students are charged tuition fees and leave with more debt, but there are much clearer guidelines to universities about the level of bursaries they are expected to provide.

Vonnie Sandlan, president of student body NUS Scotland, said it was "disappointing" to see Scotland lying at the bottom of the table for student retention.

She said: "Any student lost from education is a huge loss of their potential. While we’ve seen really strong progress in our efforts to improve fair access to higher education, that can’t stop with simply getting students into education.

"If we’re to truly realise our ambitions for fair access it’s vital that we ensure that the support is in place to not just get more students into education, but supports them to stay there and succeed."

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, which represents the sector, said the figures were particularly concerning because progress has been made in recent years to reduce drop-out rates, but this year the proportions have increased.

He said: “Given the progress made in each of the previous five years in Scotland we are disappointed to see a small increase in the number of full-time undergraduate students leaving their degree course last year.

"There can be many reasons, academic and personal, why a student might decide to leave their institution, but importantly universities’ academic and student support services will always do all they can to help them through any difficulties.

"The data doesn't give us enough detail to understand what issues students encountered last year, but we do know that efforts on widening access and retention go hand-in-hand."

Laurence Howells, chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, said officials were working to help support students to stay at university.

He said: "Current programmes give pupils valuable experience of university life, help them make the right choice of course and learn to manage their finances so that they are better prepared when they get there, reducing the chance of them leaving their studies."

Meanwhile, it emerged that fewer young people from deprived background are receiving lifeline payments to help them stay on at school or college.

New figures show a total of 32,395 school pupils and college students received an education maintenance allowance (EMA) in 2014/15 - a drop of 2,560 from the previous year.

The number of youngsters living in the most deprived areas getting the £30-a-week payments also fell last year from 11,875 to 11,185, according to Scottish Government statistics.

Annabelle Ewing, minister for youth and women's employment, said: "EMAs are a lifeline for tens of thousands of young people and their families to make it easier for them to take the decision to stay in school or further education."