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11 July 2019, 06:44
Around one in three 18-year-olds in Scotland has applied for university this year, new figures show.
Application service Ucas said 17,610 people aged 18 had applied by June 30, a rate of 32.7%, down a marginal 0.1 percentage point on 2018.
The Scottish rate is now the lowest in the UK, with England and Wales both recording increases to 39.5% and 32.9% respectively.
In Northern Ireland, the rate dropped marginally to 46.9%.
Overall, applicants of all ages in Scotland fell 3% in the year to 47,110, with Northern Ireland down 4%, Wales falling 2% and England dropping 1%.
For the first time, applicant figures were broken down by areas of deprivation.
In Scotland, 18-year-old applicants from the most deprived areas have risen by 3%, while in England they increased 6%.
The measures used differ between the two countries, however, with the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) used north of the border and Participation of Local Areas (Polar) used in England.
When Polar figures are used for all countries, applications from 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas in Scotland have fallen 2%, while Wales and Northern Ireland are both down 3%.
An SIMD figure is not produced outside of Scotland.
The Scottish Conservatives said the figures indicate progress in Scotland for young people from most deprived areas accessing university is "half the pace of elsewhere".
Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead claimed the Tories' interpretation of the figures was "totally misleading".
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: "This report shows clearly that while some progress is being made in Scotland in relation to young people accessing university from the most deprived areas, the progress is half the pace of elsewhere.
"That partly reflects the better availability of bursary support in England and the fact that there is greater confidence among young people from deprived backgrounds to apply for a place than is currently the case in Scotland.
"This is yet another stark message for the SNP that the focus for improving the situation north of the border should be on school education - specifically narrowing the attainment gap - rather than on artificial targets for SIMD quotas within universities."
Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said: "These claims are totally misleading.
"Figures for the most deprived areas for Scotland and England are not fully comparable.
"As Ucas point out, the number of applicants for full-time higher education provided in Scottish colleges is not included so the statistics do not provide a full or accurate picture for widening access in Scotland."
He highlighted last month's report from the Commissioner for Fair Access, who said Scotland is now "setting the pace in the UK in terms of widening participation, with more rapid improvement in the opportunities for young people from socially deprived backgrounds to go to university than any other UK nation".
Mr Lochhead welcomed the continuing increase in students from the most deprived areas applying to university and said the Scottish Government is committed on access being based on the ability to learn, not to pay.