Scotland has passed the "tipping point" in tackling its poor record of widening access to further and higher education, the chair of the Scottish Funding Council has claimed.
John McClelland said that while more still needed to be done, investment in schemes that allowed for fairer access to university and college meant that Scotland was now "on the way".
This included specific places for students moving from college to university and widening access targets in the newly introduced outcome agreements between institutions and the funding council, which tie funding to their widening access record.
"To say we have delivered would be ridiculous, but we are on the way. You might say I am an optimist, but I do feel we mean business this time," Mr McClelland said.
Scotland's widening access record has been branded the worst in the UK. In 2011-12, the higher education participation rate among those from the most deprived homes was 39.1 per cent, compared with a rate of 59.9 per cent among the least deprived.
Mr McClelland's remarks came as Scottish Labour's shadow education secretary Hugh Henry called the sustainability of free higher education in Scotland into question. "I am not sure we can go on as we are currently going," Mr Henry told the audience.
Universities had done very well out of the current funding settlement, but to stay competitive even the current level of funding would not suffice, Mr Henry said. The only way this could be done while avoiding the introduction of tuition fees would be through cuts elsewhere, he said.
With questions now being raised about the future of fees for UK students in an independent Scotland, now is a good time to debate whether free higher education for Scottish students was the right option, he added.
Mr Henry, speaking at a conference on the future of further and higher education in Scotland, also said that the problem of widening access to universities should not be left to universities. "By the time many young people get to primary school, they are already at a disadvantage," he said.
Attempts to support these young people into university therefore had to start early, and ensuring access to local college provision was key in giving them a "fighting chance". This could not be done by "underfunding or undervaluing" colleges.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said there had "certainly been positive developments" on widening access, "but if there is to be real progress in improving Scotland's record on fair access, we will need to see continued concerted effort from all involved".
More places for students from deprived backgrounds and improved articulation routes from college are some of the commitments made by Scottish universities in their second round of outcome agreements, TESS understands.
The University of St Andrews is promising guaranteed bursaries for living costs of up to #163;2,000 for those entering the university through the SWAP widening access programme, and 50 bursaries of #163;2,000 for each year of a four-year degree to students from targeted backgrounds.
A guaranteed accommodation bursary for every eligible undergraduate relocating to Edinburgh is one of the pledges made by the University of Edinburgh, while the University of Aberdeen has committed to increasing the number of students from the most deprived 40 per cent of neighbourhoods by 300 by 2015-16.
The University of Dundee plans to raise the number of students articulating into the university with "advanced standing" (FE students who start in the second or third year) from 65 in 2011-12 to 115 in 2013-14. The University of Glasgow aims to raise the retention rate of students from the 20 per cent poorest neighbourhoods.