Scotland's universities face falling down prestigious international league tables unless efforts are "redoubled" to convince the organisations that compile them to take account of the SNP's drive to admit more poor children, an official report has warned.
Peter Scott, the Scottish Government's Commissioner for Fair Access, said introducing lower entry requirements for youngsters from deprived backgrounds "will have an adverse impact" on the scores given to universities.
In an attack on "the potentially chilling effects of league tables", he said measures that value "widening access" to more poor children "rarely, if ever, feature" in the list of criteria used to rank Scotland's universities alongside their international peers.
But he warned "there is no escape from league tables" given their huge impact on a university's international reputation, staff morale and most significantly on where youngsters choose to study.
Umbrella group Universities Scotland last night admitted its members' ranking could be damaged but said "we are pushing ahead with minimum entry requirements anyway."
Writing in a discussion paper on the issue, Mr Scott said pressure must be brought to bear on league table compilers to give more weight to factors such as the "learning gain" of a student from a deprived background.
The report also attacked the legitimacy of the criteria that are traditionally used such as the exam grades achieved by entrants to win a place, the amount of research universities conduct and their historic reputations.
They will publish new minimum entry requirements for every course by 2019, while middle-class children will continue to be assessed against the existing, tougher thresholds.
Five Scottish universities featured in a list of the world's top 200 institutions published in September, with Edinburgh in 27th place, Glasgow in 80th position and St Andrews falling 33 places to 143rd. Aberdeen was ranked 185 and Dundee 187.
Mr Scott said "the briefest of glances" at a university website or prospectus reveals the importance of league table rankings, which are used as a "measure of prestige" and focus heavily on research.
He said those universities with other priorities, such as widening access, "will not be fairly measures in these circumstances".
Highlighting the importance given to first-year entrants' exam results, Mr Scott said: "If an institution introduces contextual admissions thus encouraging entry to those from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower attainment, this will have an adverse impact on their score.
"They are either penalised for undertaking a vital social mission or prioritise their position on a league table at the expense of access."
A Universities Scotland spokesman said: Access isn't given the same prominence in league tables, as it is by institutions, but there is extensive data and reporting on access. Some league tables capture students' average attainment on entry as part of their rankings.
"This means that lower entry requirements, as announced this week with the aim of widening access, could adversely affect an institution's ranking, but we are pushing ahead with minimum entry requirements anyway."
An Edinburgh University spokesman said: "We are confident in the capability of our all our students and do not expect further progress on access to impact on our international ranking."
Shirley-Anne Somerville, the SNP's Higher Education Minister, said: "The narrow focus of league tables on academic and research excellence overlooks those institutions that are taking action on fair access and putting their social responsibilities first.
"I would encourage universities to reflect on the commissioner’s report and I look forward to discussing the proposals in more detail with the sector over the coming months.”