Scottish pride was dented this week as it emerged that the nation's much-vaunted 50 per cent higher education participation rate has dropped.
Experts are baffled by the Scottish Executive statistics for 2002-03, which reveal that the number of young Scots entering higher education fell to 48.9 per cent, a drop of 2.6 percentage points on the previous year and the lowest proportion since 1998-99.
The figure refers to the Age Participation Index, which measures the number of under-21s who enter higher education for the first time taken as a percentage of the population of 17-year-olds. The equivalent API in England and Wales is about 34 per cent.
Scottish educationists take pride in the fact that Scotland's API for under-21s is higher even than the rate of participation for 18 to 30-year-olds in England, currently about 44 per cent.
The fact that Tony Blair set a target in England of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010 only added to Scots' smugness. The Scottish Executive has eschewed setting participation targets.
The Executive's figures show that while there has been a slight drop in the number of youngsters starting degree courses - 0.2 percentage points - the main fall is in the numbers starting sub-degree courses, 2.5 percentage points.
Scotland's high participation rate is partly due to the numbers of students taking higher education courses in further education colleges. The number of sub-degree entrants is at its lowest since 1996-97.
Experts warn that it is too early to say whether the fall in participation is the start of a trend.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, said: "I'm puzzling over the drop. It's not really changed too much since 1998, and maybe genuine widening of access has reached a plateau."
John Field, director of Stirling University's Division of Academic Innovation and Continuing Education, suggested that the jobs market offered alternatives to college.