University admissions chiefs have condemned reports of an 8 per cent drop in the number of applicants for places as "totally inaccurate" and "misleading".
Figures published today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service will show that the number of people seeking higher education places has actually fallen by just 1.5 per cent, compared with last year.
The statistics, based on an analysis of application forms received by around December 12, are more up-to-date and accurate than those quoted in The Sunday Times last weekend, said Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive.
The story claimed that figures contained in a UCAS "applications digest" sent to institutions on December 15, but based on forms processed by December 6, showed that the number of applicants had dropped from 323,000 to 298,000 - down 7.5 per cent. But the most recent analysis released today shows the number of applicants fell from 347,321 last year to 341,941 this year - a 1.5 per cent drop.
UCAS officials and university heads are also furious over a league table produced by The Sunday Times which shows some institutions apparently suffering up to a 50 per cent drop in the number of applications received this year, with the "new" universities losing ground to an elite "Ivy League".
The table fails to take account of the reduction in the number of options on UCAS applications forms from eight to six - a change which means that any fall in applications of less than 25 per cent indicates growth.
A more accurate analysis of the figures used in the story, taking the reduction in options into account, reveals that the total number of applications received by institutions was down by just 0.1 per cent by December 6.
Some "new" universities which appeared to have suffered a loss had actually reaped a gain. The University of the West of England in Bristol, for instance, was up by 3.5 per cent, rather than down by 21 per cent, as a crude reading of the data would appear to indicate.
Mike Fitzgerald, vice chancellor of Thames Valley University, placed at the bottom of the league table with a drop in applications of 52.3 per cent which in "real terms" is actually a per cent fall, said the figures were misleading because many students now applied late and through the institution rather than UCAS.
"We are seeing the emergence of a system where students apply to particular institutions after they have received their A level or other examination results," he said.
Mr Higgins said he was "dismayed" at the prospect of inaccurate messages on admissions reaching the ears of ministers. "I would hope that ministers would rely on authoritative sources rather than inaccurate newspaper reports, although there was evidence during the summer that they were prepared to listen to misinformation on foundation courses," he said.