A QUANGO which funds universities and colleges has cut £5m from a special budget used to fund bursaries for students from deprived backgrounds.
The Scottish Funding Council reduced spending in the vital area despite concerns at Holyrood that not enough young people from poorer areas are entering higher education.
However, a sector source said the fault was with universities for not bringing in enough students from disadvantaged localities.
The SFC funds 44 higher and further education institutions and spent around £1.6bn in the sector in 2015/2016.
A portion of its budget is transferred to the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS), which provides financial support through grants and loans.
Part of the transfer involves a sum paid to the SAAS that relates to additional university places for people from deprived backgrounds.
Although the SFC pays the tuition fees of these students, the knock-on effect is an extra demand placed on the SAAS in support costs, which are met by the funding council.
It is understood the amount varies depending on the demand for bursaries and loans associated with the additional places.
However, SFC board papers make clear that the total amount the quango planned to hand over for this specific purpose fell by around 30 per cent.
“The transfers to SAAS have decreased by £5m between the original grant-in-aid letter and the ABR [Autumn Budget Revision],” the papers state.
“This is because SAAS had sufficient capacity in the Higher Education Student Support budget for 2016/17 to receive the lower-value budget transfer of £13.8m for widening action instead of the higher-value budget transfer of £18.8m as originally planned.”
However, a senior higher education source said the funding issue stemmed from a problem in universities: "The logical explanation is that not enough students who need support from this budget are being accepted by the universities."
It emerged last year that young Scots from disadvantaged areas are four times less likely to go to university than their counterparts from wealthy backgrounds.
However, in England those from the poorest neighbourhoods were only 2.4 times less likely to attend university. The Sutton Trust said its findings showed a "shocking access gap".
A consequence of the SNP Government’s free tuition policy is that the number of places for Scottish-domiciled students is capped, an obstacle Opposition politicians believed should be removed.
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: "This is exactly why more transparency is required when it comes to budget lines. There might be good reasons at times for adjustments to be made but too often the detail is not fully laid before Parliament. That is not good enough and the SNP must change its ways."
Labour MSP Iain Gray said: "For some years now transfers between the Scottish Funding Council and SAAS have obscured the reality of cuts to support for poorer students.
"The SNP's cuts to student support means Scottish students increasingly face being locked out of our top universities. Instead of cutting education budgets the SNP should be protecting them. That's what Labour will continue to argue for."
An SFC spokesperson said: “The £5 million is a normal adjustment to reflect differences between estimated and actual expenditure and represents 0.3 per cent of SFC’s total budget. SFC fully funded the additional places for which universities recruited students.”
An SAAS spokesperson said: “The agreed transfer at the 2016/17 Autumn Budget Revision (ABR) was the result of close partnership working by SAAS and SFC in the form of joint scrutiny of budget requirements.
“Both SAAS and SFC agreed to maintain the same level of funding required at £13.8m, the same amount transferred at the ABR in 2015/16, since SAAS had forecasted sufficient capacity within the 2016/17 Higher Education Student Support budget to ensure that every eligible student receives the funding they are entitled to.”