NICOLA Sturgeon will today announce new measures to ensure a greater number of poorer students in Scotland can go to university with plans for a Commissioner for Fair Access and the prospect of introducing conditions on higher education funding to “impose” wider student access in the future.

The Scottish Government has come under fire from its political opponents for the slow rate of progress in narrowing the university access gap between those students from richer backgrounds and those from poorer ones.

Although access for poorer students has improved in recent years, figures for 2013/14 nonetheless showed just 1335 school-leavers from the poorest 20 per cent of households went to university in Scotland compared to 5520 from the richest 20 per cent.

Last year, it emerged that only 9.7 per cent of Scots were accepted to university from disadvantaged areas compared to 17 per cent in England, 13.9 per cent in Northern Ireland and 15.5 per cent in Wales.

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

In 2014, the First Minister established the Commission on Widening Access and in March it produced its final report, setting out 34 recommendations aimed at getting students from more deprived backgrounds into higher education.

Among its more eye-catching recommendations was that, from 2019, students from poorer backgrounds should be accepted into Scottish universities with lower grades than their middle class counterparts. One target set and accepted by the SNP Government was that, by 2030, students from the poorest 20 per cent of postcodes made up 20 per cent of all university entrants in Scotland ie a doubling of the current number within 15 years.

Another commission proposal was for the setting up of a Commissioner for Fair Access, which the Scottish Government has today also accepted.

The Commissioner's role would be to "lead cohesive and systemwide efforts to drive fair access in Scotland", including commissioning research and producing an annual report to ministers.

A senior Holyrood source explained: “To keep the pressure up on the universities, the Commissioner will report annually and be able to recommend to the Scottish Government that, if progress isn't being made, we could impose wider access on individual universities via the funding system.” The ministerial power to do this lies in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act.

“Imposing widening access could include using Scottish Funding Council funding, as suggested in the Widening Access Commission’s report, specifically to fund wider access at a university either via specific places or financial restrictions,” the source explained.

The FM has already announced that the SNP administration will work with universities to ensure that people with care experience, who meet the minimum entry requirements, will be guaranteed a place at university and also receive a full bursary.

The SNP manifesto will commit to taking forward the recommendations of the Commission in areas that are the responsibility of the Scottish Government and will support the adoption of all its recommendations across the sector.

Speaking ahead of a National Union of Students hustings, Ms Sturgeon said: “Access to university has been improving but we all know there is more we can do.

“The Commission on Widening Access has set out challenging targets that an SNP government will act on. I want to see universities, colleges and the entire education system embrace these recommendations and take steps to improve access to university.

“To ensure there is no complacency and that we keep the pressure on for real change, we will appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access.”

The FM said the Commissioner would be a real advocate for change across the whole of the sector but must also be able to “demand action”.

She added: “If the Commissioner finds universities that are not delivering on their commitments, then they should be able to recommend that the Scottish Government use the powers we have to impose widening access on universities.”