SCOTLAND' S most prestigious universities will have to significantly reduce entry grades for high demand courses such as medicine and law to ensure more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds secure places.

The country's new fair access commissioner said unless Ancient institutions such as St Andrews, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow reduced grades for poorer students inherent unfairness within higher education would continue.

A recent report by the Sutton Trust found Scottish 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas were more than four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the most deprived areas, the worst record in the UK.

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And although opportunities for disadvantaged students in Scotland is getting better, official data shows 90 per cent of the improvement is because of the expansion of sub-degree programmes in colleges.

As a result, Scottish universities have been told to lower entry grades for talented students from poorer backgrounds to reflect the minimum requirements of a course.

Professor Peter Scott, the Commissioner for Fair Access, said the proposal would be most problematic for highly competitive courses at traditional universities which demand very high levels of academic achievement by applicants.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament's education committee, which is looking at the issue, he said: "Although all universities have courses that are in high demand, the disparity between access thresholds and what might be called supply-and-demand thresholds is likely to be less in post-1992 than in longer established universities.

"Potentially this will lead to greater dilemmas for more selective universities because they would be in the position of preferring applicants with formally inferior qualifications.

"However, if access to high-demand courses is simply rationed by admitting without exception applicants with the best qualifications, the effect will be a continuing strong bias in favour of applicants from more socially advantaged background who benefit from stronger family, peer and community support and from attending higher-performing schools."

Mr Scott said the creation of additional university places would partially help to prevent students from middle class backgrounds missing out - although he said it was not a complete solution.

He added: "If efforts to recruit more students from disadvantaged groups are successful, places for other students will potentially be reduced which raises the prospect of the so-called squeezed middle.

"Although an increase in funded places, which is a political decision, may mitigate the dilemma, it cannot make it disappear entirely."

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Student body NUS Scotland backed the policy arguing that higher grades required of the most prestigious courses did not always reflect what was required of a course.

A spokesman said: "Increasing entry requirements haven’t necessarily been a response to increasing standards, but simply as a way to manage increasing demand for places as the gap between applications and acceptances has been growing and as more students aspire to university, but the available supply of places fails to match this.

"However, that entry requirement inflation fails to take account of the context of a pupils achievements. The evidence shows how students from more deprived backgrounds, even when offered lower entry requirements, can outperform entrants with higher grades from "better" schools."

Professor Andrea Nolan, convener of Universities Scotland, said: "As commissioner we fully expect Professor Scott to challenge us as universities.

"It will also be important that he offers challenges to the Scottish Government and other stakeholders with a role in widening access. Professor Scott’s role as commissioner is vital in marshalling schools, colleges and universities and others to address the challenge to close the attainment gap and promote wider access to higher education."

Last year's government-backed Commission on Widening Access said the current system was inherently unfair because it excluded bright candidates from poorer areas.

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Mr Scott is a former journalist who was knighted in 2007 for services to education and is professor of higher education studies at University College London.

The Scottish Government has set the goal of having 20 per cent of those starting university by 2030 coming from the country's most deprived areas.