Ministers were told that cuts to university funding would pose a "significant" risk to increased competition for places and put pupils from poorer families at a disadvantage but opted to progress the plans anyway, it can be revealed.

The shock warning was buried in the small print of a Scottish Government document, published alongside the budget last month.

In it, civil servants assessed how the financial proposals would measure up to the SNP's/Scottish Greens' landmark policy of widening access to higher education to children from disadvantaged households.

READ MORE: Robison reveals 1200 university places to be cut for Scots

The alarm was raised when it emerged last week that a cut of 6% - or £28.5 million - had been earmarked for “core teaching activities” at universities next year with at least 1200 fewer places offered to Scottish students than during Covid.

But it has now emerged a warning was raised in Annex B of the Scottish Government's Equality and Fairer Scotland statement contained in the raft of documents accompanying the budget papers.

It stated: "The ongoing Widening Access programme was developed in response to the long-standing under-representation of people from the most deprived communities at universities. 

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"There is a significant risk that the reduction in the HE resource budget will increase competition for remaining university places, which could disadvantage learners from socio-economically disadvantaged areas with lower prior attainment. Continued monitoring of widening access requirements on institutions will aim to mitigate this risk."

The equality statement noted that free tuition benefits around 120,000 undergraduates studying in Scotland each year.

Scottish students who win places at Scottish universities have their tuition fees paid by the Scottish Government but the number is restricted leading to universities to attract students from the rest of the UK and overseas who pay fees.

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A study found last year that more than a third of first-year undergraduates in Scotland are from abroad.

Labour's finance spokesman Michael Marra last week pressed Deputy First Minister Shona Robison on the warning over increased competition amid the funing cut and the threat it posed to widening access when she appeared before Holyrood's finance committee.

Ms Robison at first appeared to dismiss the risk but then seemed to concede the issue.

She said: "As regards the position of students from more deprived backgrounds, increasing numbers of those students have been able to access university places. 

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"We want that trend to continue and we want the attainment gap and opportunity gap to continue to be addressed. We will continue to pursue that as a clear policy objective."

Mr Marra then underlined that the warning was made by Ms Robison's own government.

He said: "You have said—under your name—that there is a significant risk to learners from poorer backgrounds as a result of the cut that you have made. What is that significant risk, as you understand it?"

Ms Robison replied: "I guess that that is recognition that, if there are fewer places for university students, that could pose a risk to those from less well-off backgrounds. 

"It is therefore important that we maintain opportunities for access to university and the non-traditional routes that support students from less well-off backgrounds, in order to ensure that, through our policies, the risks that have been identified do not necessarily come to fruition."

Labour's education spokeswoman Pam Duncan-Glancy told The Herald that university education was in danger of becoming the "the preserve of the privileged few".

The Herald: Scottish Labour's education spokeswoman Pam Duncan-Glancy.  Photo Colin Mearns/The Herald.

She said: “Scotland has worked hard to get Scots from poorer backgrounds into higher education but now it looks like SNP cuts threaten to undo progress. 

“It is a disgrace that cuts hidden in the depths of the Scottish budget threaten to wreck the ambitions of hundreds of aspirational young Scots. 

“But worst still, removing 1200 places doesn’t even come close to saving the £28m they’ve cut from higher education. The reality is, that means more cuts to places for Scottish students, or less money per student for support and widening access. Either way, students and our treasured institutions lose out.

The Herald: Humza Yousaf and deputy FM Shona RobisonFirst Minister Humza Yousaf and Deputy First Minister Shona Robison.  Photo PA.

"Under the SNP, higher education risks becoming the preserve of the privileged few. They must reflect fast on the disastrous consequences of their budget cuts before they throw away the future of thousands of young people in Scotland."

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liam Kerr MSP said: “The SNP know these swingeing cuts to university places will harm Scots from the poorest backgrounds, but they seem shamefully set to go ahead with them anyway.

“The SNP have failed miserably to eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap in our schools despite promising to do so. Now even the Government's own research shows these cuts will only make it even tougher for our least well-off pupils to get into university.

“That should be a source of shame for SNP ministers who are abandoning those who need support the most in our education system.

“The SNP must come clean about what their cuts will mean for our poorest students, what their justification is for making them bear the brunt of these proposals, and think again on this appalling draft Budget.”

Amid the controversy over higher education cut a government adviser said last week that some of Scotland’s “brightest and best” were being forced to leave the country because of the cap on university places.

Sandy Begbie, chief executive at Scottish Financial Enterprise, said the Holyrood budget posed two “very real” risks to growth. One was a greater divergence in tax that has appeared between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and the second was funding for universities.

"For the avoidance of doubt, I personally support providing better access to university education for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said in a post on LinkedIn. 

“However, the current policy is also forcing some of our brightest and best students out of Scotland. Evidence shows very few choose [to] return after graduating.”

Discussions are still ongoing on the number of places for first year students next year.
Ms Robison said she was not familiar with a suggestion made by Mr Marra that it could be as many as 3800.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The latest official statistics show we have a record number of students from Scotland’s most deprived communities entering university and ministers are determined to build on this progress. 

“Our resolute commitment to free tuition and our enhanced student support offering ensures that access to university remains based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay, ensuring that the opportunity of a university education is not denied to anyone, regardless of their background.”