A leading researcher is to publish findings that challenge the view that Scottish higher education institutions attract more young working-class students than the rest of the United Kingdom.
Bob Osborne, professor of applied policy studies at Ulster University, claims that Scottish higher education institutions accept a lower proportion of working-class students than elsewhere but further education colleges take a higher proportion.
Professor Osborne has been investigating access across the country with funds from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and other bodies including the three higher education funding councils and the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals.
His findings for Scotland will appear in Scottish Affairs in early February. Using application and acceptance figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for 17 to 21-year-olds, he shows that in 1997-98, Scotland accepted only 22.7 per cent of entrants from the three lower social classes, compared with 23.5 per cent in England, 24.5 per cent in Wales, and 31 per cent in Northern Ireland.
"The UCAS data, while limited to only one year, seem to provide evidence that the Scottish higher education institutions are less likely to attract applications or to record accepts from the manual social classes," says the report.
Professor Osborne says Scotland has a higher proportion of lower social classes than England, but this is not mirrored in patterns of acceptances.
Detailed social class data for higher education students in further education is unavailable and he cannot conclusively confirm that colleges offered more opportunities to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Lindsay Paterson, editor of Scottish Affairs and professor of educational policy studies at Edinburgh University, said: "The mythology about the Scottish universities suggests they are more open than universities elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Clearly that is not the case."
Further education colleges were now the "main repository" of the tradition of open access, Professor Paterson said. But some universities, notably Paisley, had very good links with the colleges.
"The question is what is the most feasible policy for the Scottish Parliament for widening access, and it seems universities have lost an opportunity," he said. "Colleges should be seen as the main means of widening access to higher education, and that is far more feasible in Scotland, because there are far more higher education courses in FE compared with the rest of the UK."