Young Scots from disadvantaged areas are four times less likely to go to university than those from wealthy backgrounds, researchers have found.
Their study showed 90% of growth in higher education places for disadvantaged students came from colleges, not universities.
The Sutton Trust said its findings showed a “shocking access gap”.
The Scottish government said university access for students from poorer areas was up by 29% since it came to power.
In England, those from the poorest neighbourhoods are 2.4 times less likely to attend university than people in the richest areas.
Those in Northern Ireland and Wales are three times less likely to do so.
The Sutton Trust is now calling for the urgent appointment of a new independent commissioner for fair access to tackle the problem.
Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “Scotland faces a shocking access gap and it is vital that the government appoints a strong independent commissioner without delay.
“There is good practice in Scottish universities on access, but we need a really strong push if talent is not to be wasted.”
Analysts found, over the past decade, Scots were more likely than their English counterparts to enter higher education.
But they are less likely to go straight to university, and half who go via college repeat at least one year.
In 2013-14, 55% of Scots entered higher education by the age of 30, 34.1% straight from school and 20.9% going to college first.
In England, 46.6% entered higher education, with just 6% starting at colleges and other non-university providers.
Prof Sheila Riddell, who led the study, said it highlighted the “over-reliance on the Scottish college sector to increase participation rates overall” and the failure of Scottish university places to keep up with increasing demand.
She said: “Despite free tuition, the Scottish university sector has much work to do in order to realise the goal of fair access.”
A Scottish government spokesman said some of the findings in the report were “based on misconceptions that do not accurately reflect the position” north of the border.
He added: “It is simply wrong to state that university places supported by additional funding will end in 2016/17. In reality the places will be mainstreamed into core funding and the higher education sector agreed to this at the outset of the initiative.
“The report suggests that the overall participation rate for higher education is lower in Scotland than in England.
“However, it fails to take account of the significantly different context in Scotland whereby a significant proportion of higher education takes place in colleges.
“When participation in college is factored in, the Scottish higher education participation rate is significantly higher than in England.”
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the “limited progress” in Scotland partly reflected lower bursaries.
She said: “These are matters for the SNP to address urgently, most especially in light of its policy to force universities to take 20% of their intake from disadvantaged communities by 2030, and because of recent reports which shine a light on the dangers of Scottish universities lagging behind in the finance that needs to underpin cutting edge research and innovation.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said the report “shows definitively that Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK when it comes to university access for students from poorer families”.
He added: “The SNP record on colleges – 152,000 fewer college students, poor student support and botched mergers which staff say has done nothing to improve teaching – is letting down many of the poorest students who can get into higher education.”
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