Scottish universities have fallen just short of meeting the Government’s target on admissions of students from deprived backgrounds – two years ahead of schedule.

Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics show 15.9 per cent of the new intake in Scottish higher education were from the most deprived 20 per cent in the country, amounting to 5,210 students.

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The Scottish Government had previously set a target of increasing the figure to 16 per cent by 2021, meaning the 2018/19 cohort narrowly missed out on meeting the target.

The figure had risen to around 15 per cent in 2017/18 after three years sitting at 14 per cent.

At the other end of the scale, the number of students admitted in 2018/19 from the least deprived 20 per cent is more than double – and steadily rising year on year – at more than 30,000.

Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said Scotland’s universities are “more inclusive than ever”, while also pointing to a rise in the number of native students accepted to study.

He said: “These figures show the tremendous progress of Scotland’s universities in making higher education not only more inclusive than ever, but also attracting a rising number of Scots overall.

“The proportion of full-time first degree entrants from the most deprived areas in Scotland is at its highest level on record, giving many more people – no matter their circumstances – an equal chance of success.

“That means we are on the verge of meeting a key milestone for widening access – just 0.1 percentage points shy of the target – two years ahead of schedule. That is very welcome news.”

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However, a drop in the number of EU students for the first time in 15 years may be made worse by the UK’s planned departure from the European Union at the end of this month, the minister said.

In 2018, Mr Lochhead’s predecessor, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said the Scottish Government aimed to ensure that all applicants, regardless of background, had a fair chance of getting into university by 2030.