The number of pupils from working-class communities in Scotland entering university has hit record levels, according to new figures.

There were 5,595 Scots students from the 20% areas considered most deprived according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) – up from 5,515 last year and 3,965 in 2016/17.

However, the report from the Scottish Funding Council also revealed that three of Scotland's universities have failed to meet a target of having 10% of full-time first-degree entrants from the 20% most deprived backgrounds.

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Just 7.9% of students at the University of Aberdeen were from the most deprived areas, down from 8.6% last year.

Their neighbour, Robert Gordon University, also struggled, with 6.2% of students from deprived areas, up from 6.1%.

Scotland's Rural College saw numbers drop to 5.1% down from 13.5% last year.

Meanwhile, the University of West Scotland recruited 30% of their freshers from poorer areas, while Glasgow School of Art was on 23.9% and Glasgow Caledonian hit 22.10%.

Dundee University was on 16%, while Glasgow University was on 16.7%. Edinburgh University only just beat the target, with 10.2% of their students coming from deprived areas.

This year’s figures also revealed a small drop in the proportion of students from deprived communities within the overall population of university entrants, falling from 16.7% in 2020/21 to 16.5% in 2021/22.

The report from the Scottish Funding Council said this was because recruitment "increased at a greater level across some other SIMD quintiles."

Nevertheless, Scotland’s universities are still on target to have 20% of university entrants from the 20% most-disadvantaged backgrounds by 2030. 

The report also showed that the average retention rate - the number of students coming back for a second year - dropped to 88.6% for those from deprived areas, down from 90.2%

The figures for all students is 91.5%.

The number of care experienced students also increased, with 545 students entering university in 2021/22, up from 485.

There has also been a jump in the number of entrants declaring a disability up to 17.4%, compared to 16.3% in 2020/21.

There has also been a significant spike in number of students entering university via college, up to 8,690 compared to 7,490 last year.

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Education and Skills Secretary Jenny Gilruth said she was “delighted” with the progress being made. 

"Widening Access is a top priority for the Scottish Government, and I am delighted to see a record number of first time students from the most deprived areas in Scotland securing a place at university,” she said. 

The minister added: “I am encouraged by the progress we have made in partnership with Scotland’s universities so far and I am determined to go further. 

“The principle that access to education should be based on the ability to learn is central to the Scottish Government and we will continue to support people to reach their full potential, regardless of their economic background

“Scotland’s internationally renowned universities are among our greatest assets – and every child growing up here should have an equal chance of benefitting from that.”

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Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland said having more students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university was “great for the students themselves, universities and the nation as a whole.”

“Against a backdrop of the legacy impact of the pandemic and the persistent attainment gap in schools, the higher education sector has continued to widen access to university to entrants from the most deprived areas of Scotland. 

“In addition, we are seeing more care experienced people enter university and more people confident in disclosing they have a disability.”

However, he warned that the “final mile” towards the 2030 target would be “the hardest.”

 “Universities have made significant progress to widen access, acting on the areas within their control. 

“However, systemic challenges like the poverty-related attainment gap in schools remain stubbornly persistent and the legacy of the pandemic means universities must offer greater levels of academic and pastoral support to students to help them overcome this period of major disruption to their compulsory education.”

Mr Sim called for the Scottish Government to help. He said one measure would be to deliver an “additional, person-centred access metric this calendar year, so that government policy addresses circumstances of disadvantage wider than living in an SIMD 20 neighbourhood.” 

“We need policy to prioritise targeting outreach and support at all the individuals who most need it,” he added.

A spokeswoman for the University of Aberdeen said they were committed to increasing student numbers from deprived postcodes.

"Our recruitment of students from SIMD20 postcodes has remained at 7.9% for the last two years in percentage terms but in student numbers, this is a jump from 115 students in 2020-21 to 150 students in 2021-22. This represents a rise in student numbers from these areas of 30%.

In addition to the recruitment of students living in SIMD20 postcode areas, support while they are at University is crucial.

"Aberdeen offers a range of assistance including free accommodation and student bursaries as part of our 2040 strategic ambitions to support inclusivity.

"We are pleased to see this support reflected in successful progression for students from SIMD20 areas with a retention rate of 96.2%.

"The concentration of SIMD20 postcodes in Aberdeen city and shire is low compared to other parts of Scotland and the further the challenges to recruiting SIMD20 students in the North of Scotland have been widely reported including by the original Commission for Widening Access."

Dr Kyrsten Black, SRUC Registrar, said: “As a specialist tertiary level education provider, SRUC is committed to widening access, having this year refreshed our widening access strategy.

"We provide education and development opportunities to students at all levels through a range of delivery methods: on-campus FE, HN and degree programmes, distance learning at FE, HN and postgraduate level, PhDs, schools-based National Progression Awards and through the provision of Modern and Technical Apprenticeships.

"Because SRUC currently has a comparatively low number of degree entrants compared to other institutions, the small decrease in numbers during the Covid-impacted 2021-22 academic year resulted in a seemingly significant percentage drop and we would expect to see an increased percentage for the most recent academic year.”

A spokesperson for Robert Gordon University said: “Robert Gordon University has made institution-leading strides in widening access and attempting to attract students from MD20 postcodes in both the North East region and throughout Scotland.

“However, given that there are far fewer MD20 postcodes in the North East in relative comparison to elsewhere, particularly the Central Belt, the University has strongly recommended that Higher Education widening access targets takes regional context and under-represented areas into account.

“In what was a view recommended by the outgoing Commissioner on Fair Access in his final report (‘Maintaining the Momentum Towards Fair Access’), RGU is of the strong belief that institutional targets based solely on SIMD are no longer appropriate and has proposed that the Scottish Government develop a basket of indicators which would provide a more holistic and inclusive approach to assess progress.”

“The University’s widening access team continues to work in partnership with Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire local authority schools through our ‘School Hub’ initiative.

"This embeds academic staff within over 85% of the region’s local authority schools who work directly with teachers and learners to support and encourage a positive journey to higher education.

"The following academic year aims to include the remaining four schools to ensure RGU has a regular and impactful presence in 100% of these across the North East.

“As the majority of MD20 school leavers are located outwith the North East region, the University also provides unprecedented widening access support to applicants living in an MD20 postcode nation-wide by offering free accommodation for the entirety of first year; travel support for any applicant and open days; and ACCESS RGU scholarships.

“Last year over 345 students also joined the University from colleges across Scotland through partnerships which have created articulation pathways.”