MIDDLE class students will be squeezed out of universities under radical plans to boost the number of poorer undergraduates studying in Scottish campuses, principals have warned.

Universities Scotland, the body which represents principals from 19 institutions, said there would be inevitable “displacement” from a drive to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds – unless the number of student places are expanded.

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The Scottish Government wants to increase the volume of students from the poorest households so they represent 20 per cent of all undergraduates by 2030.

However, under the current higher education system the overall number of publicly-funded places is tightly capped meaning that – without greater investment – an expansion for one group of students would inevitably lead to a reduction in others.

Professor Andrea Nolan, convenor of Universities Scotland, said: “It is a political choice how you fund a higher education system and if we are to increase places to hit the 20 per cent target without there being a change in demand and in a fixed cap system there is only one obvious conclusion which is that some people will be displaced.

“There may be other choices that are developed for those people.

“Demand may change, but that is the reality of where I see we are now.”

The comments, which came at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, were echoed by John Kemp, interim chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

Asked about students being “squeezed out” of places because of fair access schemes, he told Conservative Party education spokeswoman Liz Smith that he did “not deny” expanding the number of poorer students – and not impacting admissions elsewhere – would require more places to be made available.

But he said there were other ways in which targets could be met such as improved links between colleges and universities with students spreading their higher education studies across the two sectors.

Labour MSP Johann Lamont said the cap on places had made it harder for all Scottish students to secure a berth at university because demand is increasing faster than supply.

She said: “The way we are managing that demand is by increasing the level of qualification they require. “I would have thought that would have made it even more difficult to address the question of the gap in attainment by the time you get to college and university.

“The cap on places means there is nowhere else for universities to go, but to ration by qualification.”

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Mr Kemp added: “In the long run that is an issue we need to collectively consider, not just the funding council, in how we use the supply of places we have in colleges and universities... we also need to consider the total supply of places.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said later: “The number of funded places available in our universities has increased for 2016/17 by 1,734, enabled by over £1 billion investment from the Scottish Government this year.

“This includes additional places for widening access that are primarily taken up by Scottish domiciled students.

“This government believes in access to higher education being based on a student’s ability to learn, not their ability to pay which is why over 120,000 undergraduate students enjoy free tuition every year.”

Earlier this week, The Herald revealed how all Scottish universities had agreed to accept poorer students with lower exam grades in a bid to boost the number of working class undergraduates.

The move follows the final report of the Commission on Widening Access which recommended the introduction of so-called “adjusted offers” as a vital step towards fairer access.

Part of the problem is that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend not to do as well in school exams as those from the middle classes because of the impact of poverty and can therefore find it more difficult to enter higher education – which is highly competitive.

The commission was set up by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after that concerns initiatives to improve access to university were not making sufficient progress.

It recommended that a separate admissions system for disadvantaged pupils should be in place by 2019 and should reflect the minimum academic standards required to successfully complete a degree course.

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.

NUS Scotland, in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, called for investment in extra places to allow for an increase in poorer students.

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It said: “Investment in places is particularly important in reaching the targets for fair access set by the commission. Our figures suggest, on the basis of current trends, that these could be missed by decades.”