The detailed figures behind last week's 3.4 per cent increase in applications for full-time higher education show how quickly students'
perceptions can change and how difficult it can be for universities to counter a misleading impression. Bristol and Nottingham, for example, can easily cope with a 5 per cent drop in demand for their oversubscribed courses, but they would be concerned if they were missing outstanding candidates because of a supposed bias against independent schools. Both appeared on the schools' list of universities "causing concern" and Bristol was briefly subjected to a boycott.
Edinburgh represents the other side of the coin, as do Oxford and Cambridge to a lesser extent. Despite featuring on the same independent schools list, Edinburgh has seen a 14 per cent leap in applications after announcing that it would lower its standard offer and place more emphasis on information other than grades. The Oxbridge universities are finally persuading more students to apply, but only after long years of struggling against an image of exclusivity.
The chances of success for applicants to the leading universities from any type of school have not altered significantly, but perception is everything when hard information is limited. When the Schwartz report on admissions is published and, still more, when the Office for Fair Access begins its work, the applications data should provide a dose of reality for those who believe that central direction is the key to widening participation.