SCOTTISH universities are to recruit more than 700 extra students from poorer backgrounds in a drive to widen access to higher education.
The £40 million initiative involves all 19 universities in Scotland, who have signed up to the commitment under agreements with the Scottish Funding Council. Edinburgh University will provide 50 extra places.
Education Secretary Michael Russell said: “I am very pleased indeed to see widening access feature so highly in what universities have pledged to deliver in 2013/14.
“In ensuring at least another 700 young people from poorer backgrounds will be able to enter university next year, this commitment steps up the good work carried out already.
“As well as demonstrating that education in Scotland should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, I want to see Scotland maintain its place as a world leader in higher education.”
The government has been pressing universities for some time to increase the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds. Funding extra places avoids displacing students from more middle-class homes.
Alistair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said the additional places would help to accelerate the pace of change.
He said: “We hope to see as much as a 15 per cent increase in entrants from Scotland’s most deprived areas.”
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said the government’s decision to fund extra places would mean improvements in fair access. But he added: “It’s unclear how far universities are taking the initiative and going above and beyond this. To see the huge improvements in fair access we want to see, universities must do much more.”
The agreement was made with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
Its interim chief executive, Laurence Howells, said: “Outcome agreements see the Scottish Funding Council securing even better contributions from Scotland’s universities towards the success of students, businesses and key industry sectors and fairer access to the opportunities of higher education.”
The overall number of funded full-time equivalent places for the next academic year was set at 125,346.