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5 February 2018, 07:18
University application rates from 18-year-olds from the poorest parts of Scotland have dropped for the first time in a decade, a new report has revealed.
New data from the universities admissions body Ucas also showed the application rate for those in the most affluent communities had increased "widening the gap between the most and least".
Higher education minister Shirley-Anne Somerville conceded there is "more work to do" to increase the number of Scots from deprived backgrounds who want to go on to higher education.
But Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the fall was "particularly worrying".
She spoke out after new figures from Ucas, based on students who had applied to go to university by the January 15 deadline, showed application rates from 18-year-olds living in disadvantaged areas in Scotland - as defined by using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation - decreased in 2018, to 16.7%. This was the first decrease seen since 2008.
The report stated: "The application rate for applicants living in the most advantaged areas in Scotland increased by 1.9%, widening the gap between the most and least."
The figures also showed a 1% rise in the total number of applications to Scottish universities, with a 1% decrease in the overall number applying to UK institutions
As well as a 1% rise in Scots bidding to study at a Scottish university, there was also a 13% increase in applications to Scotland from international students from outside of the European Union.
Ms Somerville said: "While it is good to see Scotland's universities outperforming those across the UK, it is also vitally important that we continue to drive forward our ambition to widen access to university for people from our most deprived communities.
"In 2017, we saw a 13% increase in the number of people from the most deprived communities getting places to study at university. Today's application rate shows that there is more work to do if we are to see a similar increase in 2018."
She added: "Universities must do all they can to promote the opportunities available for learners from our most deprived backgrounds and to make them aware where there is still a chance to apply before the June 30 deadline.
"It is equally important that universities push ahead with the implementation of minimum entry thresholds so that the potential of those who do apply is recognised fairly within the application process."
But Ms Smith stated: "Scotland's future prosperity and the success of its young people depends on a thriving university sector. Therefore, the trends within these latest statistics are important.
"Given the financial constraints under which universities are operating and the resulting pressure to increase the number of fee-paying students, it is perhaps not surprising to see the growth in the number of international applicants.
"At the same time, it appears that the number of Scots domiciled students applying to university has started to flatline and it is particularly worrying to see a drop in the number of students applying for STEM courses and a drop in the number of Scottish students applying to university from disadvantaged backgrounds."
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: "These figures show again that major action is needed by the Scottish Government to widen access to our universities.
"We know that young people from the most privileged backgrounds are three times more likely to go to onto higher education than those from the most disadvantaged, and these figures show a complete failure to narrow that gap.
"It is time the Scottish Government took action where it's needed to help the poorest students and offer them the financial support they need."