Researchers from Edinburgh University also discovered that there has been a slight increase in deprived youngsters attending English universities despite charges of up to £9,000 per year south of the Border.
They said the findings raised concerns that the SNP’s pledge to provide taxpayer-funded degrees merely serves to “concentrate resources on those who are already relatively advantaged.”
Alex Salmond has claimed the Scottish Government’s system means access to higher education is based on the “ability to learn, not the ability to pay”.
But the report found that English universities spent more than three times as much as their Scottish peers on financial packages for poor students, thanks to their income from fees.
Education academics from Edinburgh made the damning assessment in a report on widening access to higher education submitted to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
It came after Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the university principal hand-picked by SNP ministers to review higher education, said abolishing tuition fees has mainly benefited the middle classes.
John Lamont, the Scottish Conservative chief whip, said the findings confirmed that the main factor in whether a child attends university is aspiration, not finance.
“All the SNP’s approach achieves is a hefty bill for the taxpayer, which in itself hinders Scottish students in the long-run,” he said.
The report examined the admission records of English and Scottish universities in helping poor students win places while the fees policies pursued at Westminster and Holyrood have diverged markedly.
In 2008 SNP ministers abolished an endowment graduates had to pay after finding a job but the researchers said this “has not led to increased representation of students from more socially deprived backgrounds in universities.”
In contrast, they said “there has been a slight increase in the proportion of applications from students from poorer backgrounds” in England.
Although English students are charged up to £9,000 per year, they can take out a loan to cover the cost that they do not start repaying until they get a job with a salary of more than £21,000.
The lack of fees in Scotland has meant initiatives to widen access have had “lower priority” and less funding in England, the report found.
English universities devoted £371.5 million to helping the poor in 2010/11 compared to only £10.4 million in Scotland, with the report stating the former figure was “considerably more generous”.
The amount of grants available to poorer Scots has fallen and the funding packages offered north of the Border are virtually the same regardless of the student’s wealth.
The report said tuition fees were a “particularly important issue” when public spending is being squeezed. A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The gap is closing between the most and least disadvantaged, however we accept that we need to do more.
“That is why we have taken action to ensure access to university is based on ability to learn, not the ability to pay and why we do not charge our students tuition fees.”
Source: Education News