The government’s Age Participation Index, published this week, shows that participation increased by 0.8 per cent in 2008-09, with 43 per cent of under-21s now going on to higher education.
Although the increase for people from deprived backgrounds is higher at 1.4 per cent, those from lower socio-economic groups are still more likely to be studying for a higher education qualification at a college than for a full degree at a university.
More women than men are taking part in higher education, with the participation rate for women now at 48.8 per cent compared to 37.5 per cent for men.
The overall increase in participation marks a change in direction after a 1.3 per cent decrease last year and drops in the six previous years. However, participation still falls short of the all-time Scottish high of 50 per cent in 2000-01.
The National Union of Students Scotland welcomed the figures, but said more should be done to increase university places and reform the student support system to ensure that more people from deprived areas study for a degree.
Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, said the figures also painted a picture of the situation “before the recession really hit”, raising fears that next year’s statistics could see the trend reversed.
“The increase in students from poorer backgrounds to college is a good thing, but as these statistics are before the recession became real to people across Scotland, the government is risking a perfect storm as demand from these students increases,” he said.
“There are many thousands of talented people currently facing the prospect of being denied the opportunity to study at university this year.
“The unacceptable truth is that it’s likely to be those from the poorest communities in Scotland that are hit the hardest. I fear the cliché of a whole lost generation of young people in Scotland could come true,” Mr Burns said.