PUPILS from Scotland's poorest backgrounds are being excluded from university because of subject choices at school, new research shows.

Academics found pupils from deprived backgrounds were more likely to drop key academic subjects which prevented them from applying to the most prestigious universities.

In contrast, figures from Ireland - where some subjects are compulsory - showed attempts to widen access to higher education were progressing more quickly than in Scotland.

Researchers went on to warn that the impact of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which has seen some schools reduce subjects, could exacerbate the problem.

However, the Scottish Government said more pupils from poorer backgrounds were going to university than ever before.

Cristina Iannelli, Professor of Education at Edinburgh University, who led the research, said education systems such as Scotland's with flexibility over curriculum choice allowed social inequalities to emerge because "more socially advantaged parents" were better placed to ensure their children made the best decisions over what subjects to take.

She said: "This is especially true when higher education institutions put a lot of emphasis on subjects as a way of selecting people. Choices are not inherently bad..... but they require careful management to ensure they do not end up reinforcing existing inequalities.

"In the Scottish case, our results suggest that, for reducing inequalities in higher education access, providing clear information and support in the curriculum decisions in the crucial years of secondary school is as important as improving attainment of more socially disadvantaged young people."

On the impact of CfE, Mrs Iannelli added: "I know some people have said CfE risks choice because schools are doing fewer subjects and, as a message from our research, if it does, then there is an issue that social inequality may increase. It is better to keep options open until the final exams."

St Andrews, which has been criticised for its record on access, found a very small proportion of pupils from the poorest areas in Scotland had the necessary entry requirements to secure a place there.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said the issue had been raised by the sector with the new Commission on Widening Access, which is seeking solutions.

Vonnie Sandlan, president of NUS Scotland, called on universities to do more.

She said: "That absolutely includes working much more closely with schools and colleges to ensure prospective students have the necessary advice and guidance to access higher education."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educatonal Institute of Scotland, said access to higher education was only "one route" for young people from poorer backgrounds to secure a strong future.

He said: "Part of the CfE approach is to establish parity of esteem between academic and vocational pathways." 

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said young people from deprived areas in Scotland were now more likely to participate in higher education by the age of 30 than they were in 2006/07.