Scottish universities are “in decline” according to a major international study on higher education.

A new report published by the European Universities Association (EUA) said the sector in Scotland was “under pressure” because of the pace of funding cuts.

Researchers, who compared levels of public funding across Europe, said the situation in Scotland was in “sustained decline” alongside countries such as Italy, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

The report comes just months after the Scottish Budget, which saw a 1.79 per cent real terms decline in funding for the sector.

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Universities Scotland said institutions were working hard to protect quality, but core funding was £127 million below 2014 levels in real terms.

Professor Andrea Nolan, convener of Universities Scotland, said: “For an independent report to say Scottish higher education is a declining system under pressure is significant both for Scottish Government and for our reputation internationally.

“If we act now, we can avoid the danger zone and move our universities, their staff and students in a more positive long-term direction.

“Ministers need to invest in higher education as a key driver of sustainable growth, which is the approach other small, advanced economies like Norway, Sweden and Denmark have taken.”

However, the Scottish Government said the report did not take account of the funding provided to support free tuition for Scottish students studying here.

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A spokeswoman said: “Scotland has a world-class higher education sector and we are committed to ensuring this continues to be the case in the decades to come.

“This is why we are investing more than £1 billion in 2019/20 in our higher education system for the eighth consecutive year, around 40 per cent of total university income.

“The uncertainty of Brexit continues to be the biggest threat.”

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU lecturers union, described the report as a “wake-up call” to ministers.

She said: “If we want world class universities that continue to provide excellent teaching and research, and ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed, then that takes investment, and ministers can’t afford to ignore the warnings outlined in this report.

“Scotland can compete with the best internationally, but if we are continue to do so we must act quickly to reverse what this report describes as a declining system.”

Liam McCabe, president of student body NUS Scotland, said the report was “deeply concerning”.

“If the Scottish Government are serious when they state that education is their priority, this should be a sobering indication that their approach is failing,” he said.

“We need to see meaningful public investment in our education system rather than cuts that have become commonplace.”

The worst category for universities to be ranked in within the EUA report is that of “system in danger” where sustained and deep cuts to funding and increasing student numbers threaten universities. The Republic of Ireland and Serbia are the two countries listed as a “system in danger”.

At the other end of the spectrum, the “front runners” of Sweden and Norway are categorised by the EUA as being in a “sustained growing pattern” with significant and comparable funding increases and modest increases in student numbers.