FEARS over a squeeze on middle class students is eroding support for a flagship drive to recruit greater number of poorer pupils to university, experts have warned.

Professor Sir Peter Scott, Scotland’s commissioner for fair access, called on ministers to consider increasing the overall number of funded places in higher education to ensure the success of the initiative.

The Scottish Government want 20 per cent of new entrants to universities and colleges to come from the country’s most deprived communities by 2030.

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However, because numbers are tightly capped any increase in students from one part of society will displace those from another.

Although middle class students are hugely advantaged in terms of access to university, Sir Peter’s first annual report said the cap on places “inevitably raises concerns” over reduced opportunities for other students.

It said: “This fear of displacement, highlighted by Audit Scotland, tends to erode support for fair access.

“More generally widening access when overall student numbers are increasing creates fewer dilemmas.”

The report goes on to call for ministers to invest cash saved from the Brexit process to be reinvested in universities to create additional places.

Currently, thousands of European students have their tuition fees paid for from public funds, but that will cease to be the case once the UK leaves the EU.

Sir Peter said: “You should maintain those places to keep a bit of headroom. Those places should not be lost to the system.

“Maintaining the goodwill of the sector is important, but it would also address a lot of concerns about displacement and people in the middle being squeezed out.”

A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, backed the suggestion.

He said: “We want anyone with the potential and ability to benefit from higher education to get the chance to do so, whatever their background.

“If this can be achieved, as the commissioner suggests, without limiting opportunities for young people from middle-class families, many of whom will have had to work hard at school to get their grades, we would be supportive.

“The commissioner’s comments on extra places and the need to keep university funding with universities is welcome.”

Mary Senior, Scotland Official for the UCU lecturers’ union, also supported the recommendation.

She said: “Universities are already having to balance competing demands, which is becoming increasing difficult as funding and resources are squeezed further.”

However, Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister, said providing extra places alone would not lead to a more equitable system.

She said: “Developing a truly fair system requires systemic change and will not be achieved simply by just expanding the system.

“That is why we’ll continue to work alongside the school, college and university sector to meet our ambitious targets on widening access – giving all young people an equal chance in life.”

Other recommendations in the report call for better recognition of the qualifications of college students who move to university to prevent them from repeating years.

Sir Peter called on universities to make “much bolder use” of lower offers to students from poorer backgrounds.

The report emphasised that making lower offers to applicants from deprived backgrounds was not “dumbing down” because not all applicants had the same advantages, in terms of family support or school experience.

“Making the same offer to everyone is not only unfair, it fails to identify students with the greatest potential,” the report said.

It also recommended that the Scottish Funding Council put more pressure on universities to meet targets on access.

John Kemp, interim chief executive of the SFC, said: “Our latest guidance to universities clearly signals our intention to be more demanding in terms of widening access and we will continue to monitor progress towards tougher targets.”

The report was welcomed by Jodie Waite, vice-president of student body NUS Scotland.

She said: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that a student can work hard to achieve a college qualification, but universities can pick and choose whether they recognise that achievement in full.

“Equally, the current rigid approach to entry requirements ignores the varying disadvantages faced by students.”