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.”