A CAP on the number of publicly-funded students at Scottish universities should be lifted, Scottish Labour has said.

Richard Leonard, the party’s leader, said the move would ensure sufficient places were available to all qualified students as universities seek to attract more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Because university students in Scotland get free tuition the cap acts as a control on public spending.

There is no cap in England, but students pay fees of up to £9,000 a year and leave university with significantly more debt.

Universities are currently facing targets to increase the number of students from the poorest backgrounds, but this inevitably means a squeeze on middle class pupils unless the cap is lifted.

Mr Leonard commended Edinburgh University for its use of the clearing system to widen access.

But he added: “Now Scotland’s universities need support from the Scottish Government around the cap.

“Labour would make the richest pay their fair share through tax to ensure that education is open to all, and that there are fewer barriers to university access.”

A Scottish Government spokesman highlighted figures published earlier this week which show the number of Scots winning a place at university is at a record high.

The number of number of students attending university from the poorest backgrounds has also increased.

The spokesman said: “This is testament to the Scottish Government’s commitment to maintaining free university education for students from all backgrounds.

”Scotland’s EU students and university staff also make a significant contribution to our economy, culture and society, and will remain an integral and valued part of our universities.”

As in previous years Scottish universities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow now use the clearing system to attract students from the poorest postcodes.

The move has been welcomed in some quarters, but Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at Edinburgh University, said the postcode system could, perversely, open the door to middle class students.

He said: “Disadvantaged young people not in an eligible postcode would be missed and the policy would enable many young people who are not deprived to use clearing.”