Alan Thomson and Alison Goddard dissect the early application statistics
The picture for Scotland from the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures is still murky, and neither the ancient, old nor new universities can claim their sector is doing best, writes Olga Wojtas.
The University of Abertay Dundee is out in front with a 20 per cent increase in degree applications, which it hails as welcome evidence of popular and relevant courses and a good employment record for its graduates.
But its delight is tinged with caution. "Clearly, however, recruitment figures at this time of year are still subject to numerous factors that can lead to fluctuations week by week, so it is difficult to be certain about any overall pattern," a university spokesman said.
The only other institutions recording a rise in degree applications are Robert Gordon University (5 per cent) and Edinburgh University (3.9 per cent). But Edinburgh's figures have been boosted by its merger with Moray House Institute of Education.
Abertay and RGU have been hit by a national drop in HND applications.
Applicants may be opting for further education colleges, which run most Scottish HND courses. It may also reflect a trend, detected by Napier University, of growing numbers of applicants bypassing UCAS and seeking direct entry.
The UCAS table shows Heriot-Watt University suffering the worst drop in Scotland, 10.88 per cent. But the university stresses that this figure is misleading. It does not include applications to the former Scottish College of Textiles, now the university's Borders campus. It includes figures for the environmental studies faculty of Edinburgh College of Art. And it does not take into account the suspension of a degree course in applied psychology. Heriot-Watt calculates its current downturn at 5.4 per cent.
UCAS figures based on the December 15 application deadline show that the number of people making at least one application to Scottish institutions was down by 5.9 per cent, compared with a drop of 1.8 per cent in the total number of applications.
There was a 6.5 per cent drop in the number of English applicants, a 12.8 per cent drop from Wales and a 4 per cent drop from Northern Ireland, compared with a 2 per cent drop from Scots.
There is widespread alarm that this stems from the "Scottish anomaly" whereby Scottish students will pay tuition fees for only three years of their course, while students from other United Kingdom countries will have to pay for all four years.
But Sir George Quigley, leader of the review into the anomaly, says it is too early to tell. "We'll try to get as good a fix as we can to what's happening in relation to the intake for autumn this year. The important question will be at what point in the UCAS cycle will it be clear what's happening."
He is preparing for "a little bit of a pilgrimage" throughout the UK to pick up first-hand evidence, and is keen to report to Parliament well before the official deadline of April 1, 2000.
But both the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals have written to the Department for Education and Employment urging that the Quigley committee stick to its deadline of next April. If it reports earlier, they say, it will not have had time to consider two full applications and acceptances cycles.