YOUNG Scots from disadvantaged backgrounds face "shocking" barriers to higher education, a new report has found.

Research by the Sutton Trust found the most disadvantaged Scots were four times less likely to go to university than those from the wealthiest backgrounds - the worst rates in the UK.

In England, those from the poorest neighbourhoods are 2.4 times less likely to attend university than people in the richest areas, while in Northern Ireland and Wales they are three times less likely to do so.

The Sutton Trust's Access in Scotland report also found 90 per cent of growth in higher education places for disadvantaged students in Scotland in the past decade had come from colleges and not universities - although the provision of extra funded places had made a difference.

However, the Scottish Government contested the figures arguing the report did not take into account the fact a much higher proportion of higher education took place in colleges rather than universities and therefore Scottish participation rates were "significantly higher" than in England.

Meanwhile, university leaders argued that the policy of providing free tuition for students from Scotland had given rise to a system where places were capped which was not the case in England. As a result, it was easier to secure a place south of the border.

Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: "Scotland faces a shocking access gap and it is vital that the Government appoints a strong independent commissioner without delay.

"There is good practice in Scottish universities on access, but we need a really strong push if talent is not to be wasted."

Prof Sheila Riddell, who led the study, said it highlighted the "over-reliance on the Scottish college sector to increase participation rates overall" and the failure of Scottish university places to keep up with increasing demand.

She said: "Despite free tuition, the Scottish university sector has much work to do in order to realise the goal of fair access."

The report went on to recommend speedy implementation of the findings of the Commission on Widening Access which called for the establishment of an independent commissioner for fair access and an expectation that universities have a minimum academic standard for less advantaged students.

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: "What is clear from the Sutton Trust's analysis is that England's policy of uncapped places has made it easier to get into university and this has helped access.

"Scotland's strict cap on places has made it much harder for Scottish students to get into Scottish universities. This is having clear knock-ons in terms of entry requirements and access."

NUS Scotland vice-president Rob Henthorn said Scotland should not be "ashamed" of college access to university as it was a welcome alternative for many.

However, he warned it would become a "scandalous missed opportunity" if universities failed to encourage students to use their college qualifications as a route to achieving a university degree.

He added: "The evidence of this report, and the commission, suggests there is still a two-tier system in place. Countless students are forced to repeat years of study - a waste of time, money and potential - or not even having their college qualifications recognised."

A Scottish Government spokesman said access to university for students from the most deprived areas had increased by 29 per cent since the government came to office.

He added: "The Sutton Trust report acknowledges that progress has been made on widening access, however we are clear that there is much more still to do.

"However, some of the report’s findings are based on misconceptions that do not accurately reflect the position as regards widening access in Scotland.

“The Trust’s argument on additional places also fails to acknowledge the commission’s finding that simply supplying additional places does not address the systemic problems that can restrict access.

“The report makes comparisons between England and Scotland on participation among young people from the most and least disadvantaged areas, but this is done using figures that are not comparable."