Widening Participation - Higher ambitions now twice as likely for poor students
Young Scots from the most disadvantaged areas are now more than twice as likely to apply to university as they were a decade ago, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).
The application rate among 18-year-olds who come from areas where young people are least likely to attend university increased from 7.2 per cent in January 2004 to 15 per cent in January 2014 - its highest ever level.
However, a rise across the board means the application rate among these students is still only a third of that of more advantaged students, among whom it reached 43.6 per cent in 2014.
It also remains relatively low compared with other UK countries, with the rate in England standing as high as 21 per cent.
The figures also show a significant gender difference in the likelihood of someone from a deprived background applying to university, with women much more likely to do so than men.
Progress on widening access to Scottish universities has long been criticised for being slow. However, NUS Scotland president Gordon Maloney told TESS that the Ucas figures were "clearly good news for Scotland" and showed that the country was "starting to make progress on fair access for the most disadvantaged backgrounds".
But he said: "We can never, and should never, be complacent. It is important to remember that these are just application figures and we will need to wait and see if they translate into acceptances and entrants, to ensure we are making genuine progress on fair access."
He added: "If we continue to see an increase in demand at a time of high youth unemployment, we need to seriously look at whether we can go further with increasing places."
The union president stressed that the lowness of the figure in comparison with other UK countries was in part due to the fact that the figures from Ucas did not include applications made to higher education courses at Scottish colleges. These are not processed by the admissions service and make up a significant proportion of HE participation.
Mr Maloney said: "We know that our colleges do a fantastic job of providing opportunities to study higher education, particularly for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, further strengthened by increasing numbers who then articulate into university."
Last autumn, a briefing by University of Edinburgh academics revealed that the absence of tuition fees in Scotland had failed to change the population at universities significantly, despite the fees being seen by many as a barrier to access.
Experts said at the time that attainment, subject choice, ambition and other financial factors also played a significant role.
Universities have taken a number of measures to encourage participation from more deprived backgrounds, from summer schools to early engagement programmes.
A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said it was "encouraging" that there had been an increase in applicants from low participation neighbourhoods. Over the past couple of years, she said, universities had been developing their use of contextualised admissions to give applicants a fairer chance.
"This should go some way to convert applications from deprived applicants into admissions but a lot can still happen between an application and someone starting at university," she added.
Education secretary Michael Russell said the fact that a record number of Scots had applied to university by the January 2014 deadline was "welcome news".
"I am particularly pleased to see more young people from deprived areas applying. Eighteen-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are more than twice as likely to apply to university than a decade ago," he said.
"And this comes after the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) figures in December showed that Scotland is making great progress in closing the attainment gap. Today's Ucas statistics are further evidence of this."