Scottish universities will miss out on a golden opportunity to improve their performance in widening participation because of a "cap" on student numbers.
Addressing the "Funding, Fairness and Competing Globally" conference in Edinburgh last week, David Caldwell, the director of Universities Scotland, said the cap imposed because of scarce government funds would prevent Scotland from addressing its failure to raise the number of students from the poorest communities.
Although applications to Scottish universities have been rising year on year, since 1999 the Scottish Government has refused to increase the number of places it will fund.
Mr Caldwell said the recession meant young people who would have never considered higher education before were now doing so because of the tough job market.
"There is an opportunity, but whether we will be able to take it is less clear," he said.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, presented to the conference by Jim Gallacher, emeritus professor of lifelong learning at Glasgow Caledonian University, show that Scotland has only a 26 per cent participation rate from the poorest social groups, compared with 30 per cent in England and 41 per cent in Northern Ireland.
Professor Gallacher said Scotland had an increasingly stratified higher education sector, with students from the most deprived communities most likely to attend colleges and post-1992 universities.
The level of participation from these groups in the ancient or redbrick universities had not changed in seven years.
Attainment was linked to area. "If you grow up and go to school in Glasgow, your chances of access are much more limited. If you grow up in leafy middle-class East Renfrewshire, the levels (of access) are quite high," Professor Gallacher told the conference, which was supported by Times Higher Education.
Mr Caldwell added: "This is not an ideal world, but I believe that fairness requires us to concentrate resources to help those learners and potential learners ... We have to enable (universities) to meet increased demand for places."
The conference also heard that both the Labour and Conservative parties in Scotland want the debate over student fees to be taken out of the political domain. MSPs Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and Rhona Brankin, Education Spokeswoman for Scottish Labour, agreed that an independent consultant should be appointed to advise all parties on the matter before any further discussion took place.