More than 1,000 additional Scots from under-represented groups will win higher education places in the coming academic year, thanks to a Pounds 2 million investment package from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.
Shefc has awarded more than 500 full-time equivalent places for part-time students as part of its ongoing wider access initiative. Some 300 places were allocated by a formula and 200 through a bidding system, after institutions submitted plans of how they would use the places to meet social inclusion needs.
A significant proportion of the new places has gone to new universities with a track record in attracting students from disadvantaged groups, notably Glasgow Caledonian, Paisley and Abertay Dundee. But Shefc is also rewarding institutions, such as St Andrews University, which have only recently set up part-time courses aimed at widening access.
John Sizer, chief executive of Shefc, said: "Part-time courses are a vital route for people who, because of personal circumstances, might not otherwise consider higher education."
A spokesman for Henry McLeish, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said the minister was concerned that the number of entrants from lower income groups was not rising, given the Scottish Executive's goal of making Scotland a "learning nation". But he denied reports that Mr McLeish was considering financial sanctions against institutions that did not increase their proportion of such entrants.
"There will not be financial penalties for universities. The Scottish Executive is committed to widening access and that means providing more funds for universities to tackle the issues," he said.
But Richard Baker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, accused some universities of not doing enough. "While some universities are making huge strides, others are selecting students on criteria that favour those from affluent backgrounds," he said.
"It is time for all institutions to look beyond the traditional models to the further education sector for entrance qualifications. Universities must also look to their image and culture as a factor that alienates many students."