The Government's unhappy experiences over the introduction of student tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants deepened last week as a survey of Scottish secondary heads said the changes would deter their pupils from entering higher education.
The most depressing finding for ministers is that the negative reaction rose sharply among heads of schools with a traditionally low participation rate in HE.
In the sample of 126 schools which replied, representing 28 per cent of Scotland's local authority and independent secondaries, 27 per cent were in this category which was defined as schools with less than a fifth of their pupils going on to university.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, was forced to write this week to every fifth and sixth year pupil to counter "misleading publicity" over the policy.
The survey, which stepped up the student campaign against the Government's plans for student finance, shows 68 per cent of heads believe their pupils would be put off university by the introduction of tuition fees and 70 per cent say the abolition of grants would have a deterrent effect. These figures rise to 78 per cent in each case for schools with low HE participation.
Pupil attitudes to loans differed significantly according to the nature of the school. Just over half of the heads who responded were able to canvass their pupils' opinions and 16 per cent said "roughly half" of their pupils believed students should pay something towards the cost of their university education.
This proportion was reported by 40 per cent from schools with high participation levels but fell to only 12 per cent in schools with low entry rates to HE.
Despite the Government's repeated assertion that 40 per cent of students will continue to enjoy free tuition because of their parents' or spouses' assessed income and insistence on fairer loan repayment terms after graduation, the student survey found 91 per cent of secondary heads agreeing that the proposals would not promote equal access to HE.
The Scottish university students' associations, which jointly carried out the survey, highlighted the reluctance towards taking out loans among those whom the Government wishes to encourage into HE. Jim McNair, the secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, believed these were "representative reactions from heads and consistent with what I would expect".
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has been told by Brian Wilson, Education Minister, to "use its flexibility in the short term if there is under-recruitment" in the 21 institutions it finances.