MINISTERS have blamed Scottish universities for failing to recruit more students from poorer backgrounds.

The attack comes after new figures showed a decline in the proportion of successful applicants from the most disadvantaged areas.

A report by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) found 13.8 per cent of those starting full-time degrees in 2016/17 were from the 20 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods - down from 14 per cent the previous year.

Proportions are lowest at Scotland's most prestigious universities with Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh all below seven per cent.

The Scottish Government has set a target to increase the figure to at least 16 per cent by 2021 with the ultimate goal of achieving 20 per cent by 2030.

Read more: Plans to lower entry grades for poorest students

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister, said: "These figures are a stark reminder of why this government was right to take the action we did on widening access.

“They show that in the four years up to 2016/17 nothing had changed and, on their own, universities were not making improvement in increasing the percentage of students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas."

However, Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said the government was using the wrong measure for widening access.

The government targets are based on neighbourhoods labelled as the most deprived under the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), but research has shown many of the poorest families live outside these communities.

Read more: Universities offer free accommodation in drive to recruit poorer students

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: "The slight drop in the number of university entrants from the poorest areas will be disappointing to those working incredibly hard to widen access to university, but there should not be too much emphasis placed on the SIMD metric.

"One key problem is that we are measuring the wrong thing if we want to know how many people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university.

"We know more than half of young people entitled to free school meals do not live in the poorest areas under SIMD classification and we need a more robust way of tracking the progress made widening access to those affected by socio-economic deprivation."

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, said action on the school education system was needed to widen access to university.

The intervention came after it emerged there are not enough well-qualified candidates from the poorest backgrounds to reach the Scottish Government targets.

She said: "The simple fact is that in order to improve access to university for the most deprived children, the SNP must focus effort on early years and schools policy," she said.

Read more: Warning over low numbers of high quality university applications from poorest students

Scottish Labour's education spokesman Iain Gray added: "Education was supposed to be the top priority for the SNP - instead Scotland is going backwards on widening access.

"Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university, are the least likely to complete their course and the least likely to achieve honours. Rather than making any progress on this the SNP appears to be making it worse."

The figures came under fire from lecturers with UCU Scotland official Mary Senior saying: "It’s disappointing to see the lack of progress in the percentage of students from poorer backgrounds starting university.

"The targets set are undoubtedly challenging, but if we’re going to have a chance of meeting the recommendations we will need to see a sea change in the rate of progress."

NUS Women’s Officer, Shuwanna Aaron, added: “These figures show that students from poorer areas continue to have disproportionately poorer chances of both getting into university and succeeding once they’re there."

The SFC figures also showed a slight improvement in drop-out rates and an increase in higher education students from the poorest backgrounds going to college - up from 27.7 per cent to 28.2 per cent.

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: "There are many positives for the college sector, so we welcome this report, which demonstrates how instrumental colleges are in providing both further and higher education to students from the most deprived backgrounds."