In the most deprived fifth of Scotland, just 38 out of every 1,000 people were in higher education, compared with 58 elsewhere in the country, according to a report from the Scottish Funding Council.
The ratio between the two has improved to 0.66 in 2009-10, up steadily from 0.61 in 2005-06.
But this is partly because participation in the rest of Scotland has been dropping, down from 61.7 per 1,000 in 2005-6.
“Participation has declined in the less deprived class and has been increasing since 2007-08 in the most deprived class,” says the report, Scottish Participation in Further and Higher Education 2005-06 to 2009-10.
Participation was up in parts of Glasgow, central Scotland, Borders, Stirling, West and Mid-Lothian, the report says.
Excluding the Open University, the number of students in higher education in Scotland was up 1.3 per cent in 2009-10.
But participation per thousand was still down over the five years, from 52.3 in 2005-06 to 49.7 in 2009-10.
Mark Batho, chief executive of the SFC, said that the report showed “improving trends” but that there was still more to do.
Alasdair Allan, minister for learning and skills, said: “These figures show both an increase in the overall number of young Scots participating in higher education and a rise in the number of entrants from the most deprived areas.
“Life chances are being improved across Scotland and these figures underline the importance of our decision to rule out tuition fees, ensuring access to education continues to be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay.”
Universities in Scotland are currently facing the prospect of a £268 million funding gap opening up with English universities because central funding is being largely withdrawn but they have not been allowed to raise home tuition fees.