THE proportion of 18-year-olds from the poorest backgrounds going to university in Scotland has reached its highest ever level, new figures show.

A report from UK-wide university admissions services UCAS found the entry rate for students from the poorest 20 per cent of communities rose by more than 16 per cent in 2017 to 12.3 per cent.

Over the same period the proportion of students from the most affluent backgrounds getting to university fell by 2.7 per cent to 41 per cent.

Although the changes mean the gap in access between richest and poorest has narrowed, advantaged students are still 3.3 times more likely to enter higher education.

Clare Marchant, chief executive officer of UCAS, said their analysis showed the number of students from disadvantaged areas going to university had never been higher.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister, welcomed the progress, but said the government wanted to go further.

She said: “We already invest over £1 billion in higher education each year, including £51 million a year to support approximately 7,000 places for access students and those progressing from college.

“I want every child to be able to reach their full potential - no matter their background - which is why this government has ambitious targets to widen access to higher education.

“The UCAS statistics show what can be achieved when we focus on making education fairer, but I want to see higher education institutions go further and faster.”

A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents principals, also welcomed the progress.

He said: “This publication only gives a partial picture, but it demonstrates that Scottish universities are heading towards our ambition on widening access.

“There’s been considerable effort made by individual universities, as well as the sector working as a whole, to ensure those with talent and potential, regardless of background, can attend our world-leading institutions.”

However, Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said the gap between rich and poor was still “unacceptable” and called for a boost to bursary support.

He said: “The SNP has slashed grants and bursaries, forcing students to turn to loans with the poorest students racking up the highest debts.”

Luke Humberstone, president of student body NUS Scotland, said: “It’s really encouraging to see the gap narrowing.”