SCOTLAND'S ancient universities are increasingly targeting fee-paying students from England to boost their finances, new figures show.

The universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews have all given offers to a higher percentage of applicants from England compared to those from Scotland. The same is true of the universities of Stirling and Strathclyde.

Last week, a major report by Audit Scotland said Scottish students were finding it increasingly difficult to secure a place at university here because applications are increasing at a higher rate than available places.

However, despite the difference in offer rates Scottish universities still recruit far more students from Scotland than from south of the Border with 33,000 in 2015 compared to just 4,560 from England.

The Scottish Conservative Party, which wants to end free university tuition in Scotland, said the figures proved Scottish domiciled students were "losing out" on the offer of a place at key universities.

Liz Smith, the party's education spokeswoman, said: "We have known for some time that some of the brightest pupils in Scotland are finding it very much tougher to get in to top universities despite having better grades than similar students a few years ago.

“The root cause is the SNP's very divisive and discriminatory higher education funding policy which is forcing universities into very tough choices. Not surprisingly, there is a growing preference for students who will pay fees."

However, Vonnie Sandlan, president of student body NUS Scotland, dismissed the suggestion Scottish students were at a disadvantage.

She said: "The idea universities are able to pick and choose between fee paying and Scottish students bears no reality and any university that under-recruits on Scottish places faces penalties.

"The key is ensuring that those Scottish places continue to be increased to match the level of student demand and our ambitions on widening access."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Shirley-Anne Somerville, Minister for Higher Education, attacked Conservative policies on university funding and said no party had done more in government than the SNP to support students.

He added: "The only party with a divisive and discriminatory funding policy for students is the Tories. In Scotland, they want to introduce a backdoor graduate tax and it is ludicrous to suggest their funding policy will encourage more people, especially those from less well-off backgrounds, to go to university."

Last week's Audit Scotland report said universities were placing increasing reliance on generating income from fee-paying students from the rest of the UK and overseas. As a result, 66 per cent of higher education students were Scottish in 2014/15 compared to three-quarters in 2005/06.

The difference has emerged because of the way the different systems are funded. Applicants from England are treated like international students and pay annual fees of up to £9,000. There are no limits on the numbers universities can recruit.

In contrast, Scottish students are not charged for the cost of their tuition, but the number of available places is capped by the Scottish Government.

That gives the impression English students are getting in at the expense of Scottish students when in fact they are not competing for the same places.