SCOTTISH universities have seen a damaging decline in the proportion of young students from the poorest backgrounds despite efforts to reverse the trend.

Eleven of the country's 18 higher education institutions saw a drop in the percentage of undergraduates under the age of 21 accepted in 2015/16 compared to the previous year.

Universities which saw a decline included Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt and Stirling. Strathclyde University was one of the few to see the proportion of its poorest students increase.

The Scottish Government has set a target for one fifth of students entering higher education by 2030 to be from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived communities, but the figures show the overall proportion at universities has now slipped from 10.8 per cent to 10.4 per cent.

However, the figures do not provide a complete picture because they do not include students studying higher education at colleges or older learners.

Meanwhile, separate figures showed Ancient Scottish universities are taking a disproportionately high percentage of students from private schools.

Pupils who are educated in the independent sector account for just four per cent of total pupil numbers across Scotland, but they amount to 41 per cent of those accepted at St Andrews University, 32 per cent of those going to Edinburgh University and 20 per cent of those at Aberdeen.

Vonnie Sandlan, president of student body NUS Scotland, described the decline in students from the poorest backgrounds as "incredibly disappointing" and warned they showed how far Scotland had to go to achieve its ambitions.

She said: "After the marginal increase seen last year we’ve fallen right back to where we were, with an equal decrease this year.

"Education is a transformative experience and the responsibility to ensure that it’s in reach for every child in Scotland, with the potential to succeed, is incumbent on us all, but these regressive figures suggest that’s far from the reality, and those young people are still being left behind."

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said the sector was developing fresh approaches to improving access policies including better bridging programmes between school, college and university and lowering entry grades for disadvantaged applicants.

However, he highlighted the fact there had been a decline in applications from prospective students from the poorest parts of the country in 2015 which had impacted on progress.

He said: "The data on university entrants from the most deprived backgrounds follows a drop in 2015 in the number of students from the most deprived backgrounds who applied to university. This has to change if we are to see meaningful progress.

"The good news is that the drop in applicants appears to be a blip and the numbers applying to university from poorer areas has grown since then and universities will do all they can to encourage ambition, to support attainment and to recognise potential to give students much-deserved opportunities."

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Minister for Higher Education, added: "The SFC statistics show the entry rate into universities from the most deprived areas among young people during 2015/16 fell back slightly.

"We know we have much more work to do on widening access, and since this cohort applied to university we have committed to implementing the recommendations from the Commission on Widening Access and appointed our Fair Access Commissioner, Professor Peter Scott, to drive this agenda across the country."

John Kemp, interim chief executive of the SFC, said: "The figures on young entrants to full time degrees are disappointing although inclusion of data on older and part-time students would increase the percentage from the most deprived areas.

"The data makes clear there remains a lot to be done and it will be a top priority for us to work with the new Commissioner for Widening Access, the Scottish Government and with every university in Scotland to use these figures in guiding what we need to do next."

Mary Senior, UCU Scotland Official, said: “It is deeply disappointing that again there’s no improvement in the Scottish widening access figures and particularly worrying to see a fall in the numbers of students from poorer backgrounds in half of Scottish universities."

Welcoming the increase at Strathclyde, Professor Sir Jim McDonald, the university's principal, said: “Since our foundation more than 200 years ago we have established a proud track record of removing barriers to higher education and I am pleased these figures confirm the success of our widening participation initiatives."