A government minister has told universities to “get on with the job” of widening access to poorer students.
Higher education minister Shirley-Anne Somerville said progress had been made in the key government pledge to ensure more people from deprived areas go to university but institutions need to “pick up the pace”.
She said the government would continue to “consider the merits” of increasing funded places, as recommended by Scotland’s Fair Access Commissioner, as Labour urged her to create more grants for poorer students.
She told MSPs all applicants, regardless of background, should have an equal chance of going to university by 2030.
Speaking at Holyrood, she said: “We expect every university to take action now to ensure that, by 2021, 10% of entrants to each university are from Scotland’s 20% most deprived backgrounds.”
She said the “greatest inequalities” in the higher education sector are in universities.
The commissioner’s first annual report warned despite steady progress the current momentum “may not be sufficient” to meet government targets on access and recommended action on contextualised admissions, bridging programmes and increasing funded places.
Responding to the report, Ms Somerville said “universities need to pick up the pace of change on implementation”.
She added: “I fully understand why this recommendation (on increasing funded places) has been made and we will continue to consider its merits.
“We are conscious, however, that ultimately we are engaged in reforming the system and this is best achieved by the fairer distribution of publicly-funded opportunities.
“In the end, widening access will be achieved by building a fairer system rather than continually expanding an unfair one.”
Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray praised the introduction of a bursary for young students who have been in care.
He said: “Surely the minister can see, then, that access to non-repayable bursaries and grants while studying are also critical to young people from deprived backgrounds considering university because they too will not be able to turn to their families for financial help.”
He urged the government to reduce loans and increase bursaries for poorer students.
Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith asked for a timescale on a higher achievement levels study to inform universities’ minimum entrance requirements for deprived students.
Ms Somerville said universities did not need the information, adding: “They need to get on with the job of moving on with contextualised admissions and minimum entry requirements.
“We can’t afford to wait another year, for another round of data and seeing another round of students not getting access to university places that they should have.”