THE poorest students in Scotland are leaving university with some of the largest debts, new figures show.

The Student Awards Agency for Scotland said the most disadvantaged students were taking annual loans of £5,780 compared to £4,940 for the most affluent.

For a student on a four-year degree course this would amount to more than £23,000 of debt.

The figures also show the number of students receiving grants and bursaries rose by 2.8% - with the average bursary now £1,480 compared to £1,400 the previous year.

Liam McCabe, president of student body NUS Scotland, welcomed the slight increase in grants and bursaries, but called for urgent action to address debt.

He said: “There is much more to do to reverse the historic decline in levels of bursary and tackle mounting student debt.

“With the figures showing students in the lowest household income bracket still finish their course with the most debt it is clear the Scottish Government must focus on improving bursaries for the poorest students.

“The Scottish Government’s continued commitment to free tuition is appropriate ... but rising living costs and increasing uptake of loans means average graduate debt will reach record highs in coming years.”

Mr McCabe said because the poorest students could be put off going to university given that they were often the most debt adverse.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU, which represents lecturers, blamed the rise in loan requests on increasing living costs.

She said: “We need to take care that by giving out more loans that we’re not simply adding to the debt burden on students as they graduate.

“Wherever possible, bursaries and grants should be the Scottish Government’s preferred method of providing student support.”

The Scottish Labour Party highlighted figures which showed that, since 2008, the average bursary payment has reduced by 22 per cent, while the average loan authorisation has increased by 118 per cent.

Iain Gray, the party’s education spokesman, said: “Too much of the student support package is weighted towards loans rather than grants and bursaries.

“The SNP once promised to end student debt, but for years now they have saddled the poorest students with the biggest debts.”

However, Richard Lochhead, the Higher Education Minister, said the Scottish Government was investing record amounts in student support.

He said: “As a result, more students, including those from the most deprived backgrounds, are benefiting from free tuition and the maximum level of grant or bursary.”

The total amount authorised in loans was £528 million in 2017/18 at an average of £5,290 per student compared to £5,280 the previous year.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh University has met a Scottish Government objective to attract 10 per cent of students from the country’s poorest postcodes three years ahead of schedule.