TOP Scottish universities have been urged to dramatically lower entry grades for students from poorer backgrounds.

In what would amount to an unprecedented overhaul of university enrolment, academics said elite institutions such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews should drop entry requirements to five "B" grades at Higher for top courses such as medicine, law, accountancy, science and mathematics.

The current benchmark for the most competitive degrees can often be five "A" grades at Higher with scope for only two grades to be lowered for bright students from poorer backgrounds - so-called adjusted offers.

Academics said it would still be possible for students to secure a degree even with the significantly lower entry requirements and the impact would be to double the pool of eligible candidates from deprived communities.

The recommendation comes in a new report by academics from Durham University commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

The report states: "The evidence suggests that a high probability of progression from year one to year two of an undergraduate degree programme can be achieved with Higher grades of BBBBB at highly selective higher education institutions.

"The evidence presented also indicates that a high probability of a first or upper second class degree can be achieved with Higher grades of ABBBB/BBBCC for science/arts programmes at highly selective universities.

"Employing more ambitious adjusted offers for disadvantaged applicants and advertising the fact would likely increase applications from such students."

The report also calls on universities to step up the work they do to support students from poorer backgrounds as they progress through their courses.

It adds: "It is important to recognise that disadvantaged students are likely to need additional learning support if they are to fulfil their potential at degree level."

Widening access is a key priority of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but figures published earlier this year showed a decline in the proportion of young students from the poorest backgrounds accepted by many of Scotland 18 higher education institutions.

Eleven universities saw a drop in the percentage of undergraduates under the age of 21 accepted in 2015/16 compared to the previous year including Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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 and can find it difficult to enter higher education - which is highly competitive.

However, the policy of adjusted offers is controversial because a consequence is the displacement of middle class students with higher grades unless the Scottish Government funds an expansion of higher education.

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.

Professor Vikki Boliver, who co-authored the report, said: “Considering applicants' qualifications in light of their socioeconomic circumstances is key to ensuring that the potential of socio-economically disadvantaged applicants is not overlooked.

"This study shows how Scottish universities can deliver on their commitment to widen participation by developing more effective and more ambitious contextualised admissions policies."

John Kemp, interim chief executive of the SFC, said: "Exam grades do not always represent the best measure of someone’s potential unless we also consider the context in which those grades are achieved.

“This report gives us the evidence to create a fairer system of university admissions based on finding and supporting talent and we are committed to acting on its findings and will be working with our universities to do so."

Amongst the report's other recommendations are the introduction of an improved set of characteristics to identify disadvantaged applicants.

These include spending time in care, being a long-term carer, receiving free school meals, receiving an Education Maintenance Allowance, or being a refugee or asylum seeker.

The report warns against placing too much reliance on any one indicator alone such as the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation which is the government's preferred measure.

And it called for all institutions to agree a set of terms and requirements around entry that were transparent to those applying.

The report says: "The use of a wide range of different terms may create confusion for prospective applicants exploring different institutional options.

"Providing more detailed information to prospective students in a user-friendly way is likely to encourage engagement with the institution."