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9 June 2016, 18:08
Nicola Sturgeon has insisted it is "simply wrong to say that progress isn't being made'' in increasing the number of youngsters from the poorest areas going to university.
Ms Sturgeon's claim came after new figures showed the number of 18-year-olds from the most-deprived areas who are taking up a place has fallen.
Opposition MSPs attacked the SNP over the "shocking'' figures from admissions body Ucas after it revealed 1,215 18-year-olds from the poorest parts of Scotland were given a place at university in 2015, down from 1,305 the previous year.
Figures for individual universities, which were published for the first time and which have been rounded to the nearest five, show St Andrews University placed 15 18-year-olds from the poorest parts of Scotland in 2015, down from 25 in 2014.
Edinburgh took on 75 students of this age from this background in 2015, compared to 100 the previous year, while the total in Glasgow remained stable at 190. The city's Strathclyde University accepted 215 18-year-olds from the poorest areas, up from 200 in 2014.
While the number of successful applicants from the poorest areas fell across Scotland as a whole, there was an increase in Scots of the same age from the most-affluent communities going to university, which rose from 4,605 to 4,685 over the period.
Of those 18-year-olds looking to start a course last October, 1,935 of the applicants who met the June 2015 deadline were from the most-deprived communities, a drop of 60 from the previous year.
Speaking at Holyrood, the First Minister said the figures did not include "the substantial number of students in Scotland who enter higher education via college''.
Ms Sturgeon stated: "Not everybody who goes to university goes at 18, so when you look at these figures and look at the figures for people of all ages, the numbers from the deprived areas both applying to and being accepted to university is up in 2015 compared to 2014, by about 10%.''
She accepted the Scottish Government has "got work to do'' but told MSPs: "It is simply wrong to say that progress isn't being made.''
She also said the Scottish Government would force universities to tackle the issue if ministers feel progress on improving access is not made quickly enough.
The First Minister ordered a report into widening access to university, and said a commissioner for this would shortly be appointed.
She pledged: "If that commissioner tells us that universities aren't doing enough, we will use the statutory powers that we legislated for, that Labour voted against, to make sure that universities do more.''
The Tories, who proposed graduates should have to pay a charge of up to £6,000 after finishing their studies, claimed the new data showed the SNP administration was failing the poorest students.
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: "This is a damning report confirming that the SNP just isn't doing enough to close the attainment gap or increase opportunity among Scotland's least-privileged.''
Liberal Democrat education Tavish Scott said: "The SNP have had nine years to ensure that young people from a poorer background are on a level playing field with their contemporaries..''
Green education spokesman Ross Greer said: "This is about more than whether or not we introduce tuition fees, which would of course be a disaster.
"It's about the putting in place the support systems, financial or otherwise, which allow students regardless of their background to feel that university is an option open to them.''
A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said: "The one factor that underpins all of the data for Scotland is that whoever you are and whatever your background, it is a lot more competitive to get into university in Scotland than it is in other parts of the UK, and that comes down to the limited availability of places here in Scotland.
"We would like to see more funded places available at university to help ease this pressure a little and support widening access.''