Scottish educationists are hailing a new mood of optimism among prospective students following the abolition of tuition fees, demonstrated by today's announcement of a dramatic late rise in applications for the coming year.
Applications by Scots through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service rose by almost 4,000 between mid-December and the end of March, an increase of 19.2 per cent on the same period last year.
The total number of Scottish higher education applicants shows only a fractional increase, up 22 from 26,780 last year to 26,802. But Ucas chief executive Tony Higgins said: "Although the overall increase is only small, it is significant because in December the number of Scottish applications was 2.5 per cent down on the previous year. Scotland was showing the biggest fall in applications in the United Kingdom, but now it is showing the biggest rise."
But a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "We do not believe the figures support the claim made by Ucas. The numbers of Scottish students applying to Scottish universities has stayed the same since last year."
Richard Baker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said this coincided with the Cubie report and the Scottish Executive's subsequent abolition of tuition fees and boost for bursaries.
"It shows that people are more optimistic about student funding, and more confident about going on to higher education," he said. "That is why we are calling for a similar review of student support to be carried out down south."
Scottish students beginning courses this autumn will pay neither tuition fees nor a graduate contribution. Extra support, including Pounds 2,000 annual access payments for low-income students, will come on stream in 2001.
A spokesperson for the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals said: "It is a good sign that the application figures to Scottish higher education look healthy now that the uncertainty over student funding has been removed.
However, while the changes have clearly had a positive effect, we mustn't get carried away. One area of concern is the 10 per cent gap between Scotland and other parts of the UK in the ability to attract overseas students."
The Ucas figures show a 5.3 per cent decrease in overseas applications to Scotland, compared with a 5.1 per cent increase in England.
Coshep has already called on the Scottish Executive to make a Pounds 1 million investment to help its institutions beef up their websites.