A record number of people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds are accessing higher education in Scotland, official figures indicate.
According to statistics published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), a total of 4,655 students from the 20% most deprived areas of the country attended university on a full-time basis in 2017/2018 – a rise on the 4,195 for the previous year.
They made up 15.6% of all the Scottish students starting a full-time university course in that period.
The rate of students attending full-time university courses has increased steadily since 2002/2003 – the earliest data provided in the SFC report – when the figure was 2,790.
A total of 6,200 students from the most deprived areas accessed a college higher education full-time course in 2017/18, whilst 14,830 accessed full-time college further education.
The report also highlights a rise in the number of women on courses at universities and colleges since the start of the century.
In 2017/18, a total of 58.8% of Scottish domiciled students on a full-time university degree were women – an increase on the 58.1% on the previous year and a rise on the 54.9% in 2002/2003.
It was noted however that there is still under-representation of women on courses including engineering and computer sciences at university level, while men were under-represented on courses such as social studies and nursing.
The number of Scottish domiciled students from a BME background has also increased.
On full-time university courses, the figure rose from 2,315 in 2016/2017 to 2,615 in 2017/2018 – representing a rise on the 1,140 students in 2002/2003.
At college, the number of students living in Scotland from a BME background rose from 645 on full-time higher education courses in 2002/2003, to 1,375 on such courses in the latest statistics.
For further education at colleges, the number of full-time students increased from 1,430 in 2002/2003 to a total of 2,560 in 2017/2018.
SFC chief executive Karen Watt said that although the figures are encouraging, there remains work to be done to increase diversity.
“This report shows evidence of good progress,” said Ms Watt.
“This is happening because universities and colleges are working hard to ensure everyone has a fair chance of a place on a higher education course.
“It is especially encouraging to see evidence that universities are improving their support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds so that the retention rate for these students is getting closer to the norm.
“Achieving greater diversity and fair access is a collective challenge and there is a lot of work still to do. However, this report shows Scotland is leading the way in this important area.”
The Scottish government wants a fifth of students at every university to come from Scotland’s most deprived areas by 2030.
Further and Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead said: “This report demonstrates that universities and colleges are making strong progress on widening access to higher education.
“We have a record increase in entrants from our most deprived areas, and the gap between those from the least and most deprived backgrounds is smaller than ever.
“There are already 12 institutions exceeding their 2021 target to have at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants from the most deprived areas.
“The proportion of disabled students and black and minority ethnic students entering higher education is also increasing, while key university retention rates for both deprived and care experienced students are improving.
“Overall, that means many more people in Scotland – no matter their background or circumstance – are benefitting from higher education, giving them an equal chance of success.”
Shona Struthers, from Colleges Scotland, said: “Colleges are intrinsic in helping create a fairer society as they continue to provide a route to education for learners of all ages and from all environments.
“The commitment to fair access and social inclusion by the sector is also helping to reduce poverty and increase inclusive economic growth.
“We welcome this report which shows how fundamental colleges are in providing opportunities for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds through access to further and higher education.”