* Oxford and Cambridge attract around 9,000 applications each for 3,000 undergraduate places a year
* Their graduates earn an average of 8 per cent more than those from from "old" universities and are the least likely to go into teaching
* Only three of the 10 post-war prime ministers did not take a degree at Oxford
* Thirty years ago, in the days of grammar schools keen to get people in, the two universities had a much higher proportion of students from state schools
* Forty-eight per cent of Oxbridge students are female and the proportion is steadily rising
* Both say specialist knowledge will not help candidates; their academics are trained to spot the well-coached fraud. Consultancies helping students to get in disagree
"My first sight of him was in the door of Germer's, and on that occasion I was struck less by his looks than the fact that he was carrying a large teddy bear. 'That,' said the barber, as I took his chair, 'was Lord Sebastian Flyte. A most amusing young gentleman'."
From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
It is easy to caricature the ancient seats of learning. Lazy summer days, boats, boaters and public schoolboys - lots of them. After all, the two universities still take almost half their students from the privileged, fee-paying sector. So when Chancellor Gordon Brown launched his extraordinary attack on their admissions procedures - citing Oxford's failure to give a place to comprehensive school girl Laura Spence, who had outstanding A-levels, as evidence of "scandalous" bias - he received, initially, at least, much support. But Mr Brown soon found that no one acquainted with the evidence agreed with him. And that went for Laura herself, who came 10th in the competition for five places to read medicine at Magdalen College.
Oxford and Cambridge had been reforming their admissions process for at least two decades before his outburst and, as it turned out, Magdalen was at the forefront of the hunt for the brightest and best state students, spending around pound;250,000 a year in the process. Together, the universities were laying out millions. That was two-and-a-half years ago; their efforts to attract candidates from non-traditional backgrounds have since increased.
But students from the poorest sections of society remain comparatively rare, and while the proportion of state-school students is moving upwards, it does so at snail's pace. The universities continue to sustain attacks from both sides. Not a year goes by without fresh accusations of prejudice against comprehensive school pupils. Meanwhile, the independent sector is starting to feel the heat, with headteachers complaining that the balance has started to swing in favour of candidates with the advantage of a state education.
Why does anyone want to go there?
Prestige - intellectual, social and political. Each university attracts around 9,000 applications a year for 3,000 undergraduate places. They are at the top of the tree academically, head research ratings and offer facilities and staff-to-student ratios that other universities can only dream of - the tutorial system is largely subsidised from the colleges'
endowments. Students are taught by many of the best and best-known in their fields. The towns are safe, attractive places geared to undergraduates'
needs; alcohol and parties are as plentiful as at other universities.
Oxford and Cambridge are also major centres of influence. Their graduates dominate politics, the judiciary, the civil service, the boardroom, the arts and the media. They earn an average of 8 per cent more than other graduates from "old" universities, and are the least likely to go into teaching. Of the 10 post-war prime ministers, only three did not take degrees at Oxford, and one of those, Jim Callaghan, subsequently had a research fellowship at Nuffield College.
So how do you get in?
Oxford and Cambridge still have distinctive admissions procedures. They insist, for example, on issuing their own separate application forms, which must be returned by October 15. The Ucas deadline is the middle of December - Oxbridge's earlier date is to allow for interviews to be scheduled. The colleges rather than the university admit students, so there is no way of avoiding a potentially unnerving interview.
That said, getting a place is now more straightforward in procedural terms than ever. The old entrance exam, taken in the "seventh term" of sixth-form was abolished in 1995 in Oxford - a decade before that in Cambridge. And this year Cambridge got rid of its successor, Step (sixth term examination paper) taken by younger sixth-formers - except those wanting to study maths. Instead, it awards places like other universities, on predicted or actual A-level results and an interview. Oxford and Cambridge meet almost all of their candidates face to face.
School references and candidates' statements, which are included in all university applications, are important because, with most applicants boasting three or four A grades at A-level, the universities have few means of differentiating between them. GCSE, AS-level and Advanced Extension results are also taken into account.
Some colleges set informal tests. Candidates wanting to study maths at Cambridge take the Step exam because the subject is seen as demanding. The standard Oxbridge offer is three As at A-level, or, sometimes, two As and a B.
What about the colleges?
These are the major complication. Until recently, all candidates to both universities had to apply directly to one of the autonomous colleges - and this is still the norm. Cambridge has 25 undergraduate colleges, Oxford 30. Candidates are expected to name a preferred college, then those who fail to get a place are put into a "pool" to be picked over by any other interested colleges. The two pool systems differ slightly. Cambridge candidates pick three colleges, in order, which take much of the winter to examine applications and reach a decision. The Oxford process is faster. Second and third "choice" colleges are allocated automatically by the university, and candidates are often taken round for interviews at these during a two-day visit.
The college structure has been criticised for working against those who are not in the know. Their size, prestige and popularity vary, so the process has historically tended to work in favour of students with access to good advice. If the don sizing you up is an expert in obscure Renaissance poets, the argument used to go, read up on obscure Renaissance poets.
But Cambridge and Oxford are not about to alter the system, arguing instead that it has much to offer academically, including a close relationship between teaching staff - who belong to the colleges - and students. They say elements of bias or personal preference associated with the past have been swept out of the admissions process, and that they are attempting to make it still more straightforward. Cambridge now allows students to apply centrally, through an "open application" for example, ensuring that good candidates can ignore the colleges and still get an interview. Oxford is considering following suit.
Is it easier to get a place if you are privately educated?
It looks that way, but appearances are misleading. Grade for grade and application for application, this is not the case. Around 47 per cent of the Oxbridge intake comes from the independent sector, which means that privately educated students account for a disproportionately large number of places - about 20 per cent of sixth-form pupils go to fee-paying schools. But that does not mean the universities are biased against state schools. It is a fact that students in the independent sector are well qualified. They account for more than one in three sixth-formers with three As at A-level, and the proportion with four As or more is even higher. Any entrance system that relied on A-level point scores alone would be unlikely to help state-school candidates. More important still is that numbers of state and private-school students at Oxbridge are broadly in proportion to the numbers of applicants - which is to say that relatively few comprehensive schools send any candidates.
Thirty years ago, the two universities had a much higher proportion of state-school students - up to 60 per cent - but times and attitudes have changed. The old grammar schools were keen to get people in, and built up their expertise. Now, the universities say they are met with outright hostility in some state-funded schools. The independent sector has also sharpened up its act since the early 1970s. Private schools now produce well-rounded liberal arts and science candidates as well as the athletes and classicists of the past. They are also aware that their commercial success depends partly on their Oxbridge record.
So there is no real evidence of bias in favour of public schools. In fact, some public school heads say bias now works the other way. But there can be no doubt that coming from a comfortable home with supportive, knowledgeable parents and teachers is a huge advantage for any candidate.
Is it better to be male?
You will soon be better off as a girl. Forty-eight per cent of Oxbridge students are female and the proportion is rising - reflecting the steady improvement in girls' GCSE and A-level results.
What attempts are being made to make the universities more open?
Both universities say the stateprivate school divide is less important than attempts to help under-represented groups, particularly candidates from inner cities and some minority ethnic backgrounds. Laura Spence, for example, may have been to a comprehensive school but, as Oxford pointed out at the time of the furore, she comes from a comfortable background that is well represented at both universities. A combination of political pressure and competition for the best students has pushed both universities into making significant efforts to broaden their intake. Both, for example, promise to train every member of staff who conducts interviews; they run regular conferences for students and teachers to drum up interest; they operate special admissions schemes for bright students from deprived or unusual backgrounds; they publish copious amounts of guidance for students and schools and operate telephone hotlines as backup; and student unions run their own recruitment drives, sending state-educated pupils back to their old schools to spread the word.
Cambridge has increased the number of its helpline staff and has encouraged each of its colleges to "adopt" an area of the UK unrepresented in applicants. It is so concerned about the difficulty of distinguishing between the thousands of candidates that it has commissioned a series of statistical analyses from the Cambridge exams group to help interpret GCSE results and A-level predictions.
Both universities offers taster courses for students, sponsored by the Sutton Trust. They also run study weeks for teachers and have set up links with FE colleges to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply.
The universities are also attempting to iron out quirks in the system, introducing mathematical models to make sure no candidate is disadvantaged by mistakenly making an oversubscribed college his or her first choice.
Can specialist knowledge swing the balance despite these measures?
Oxford and Cambridge say not. They say the system is transparent and their academics are trained to spot the well-coached fraud. The only specialist knowledge required, they argue, is in the official literature. But not everyone agrees. Oxbridge Applications (formerly known as Applications Research) is a consultancy specialising in helping students get places at Oxford and Cambridge. Founded and run by Oxbridge graduates, it claims a high success rate. Fifty-two per cent of candidates who have taken their "no-win, no-fee" one-day training course have been successful, compared with only 30 per cent of candidates as a whole. The company attributes the success to its detailed knowledge of the colleges, of the interview system and the interests of their various admissions tutors. It reckons to be dealing with about 2,000 - 10 per cent - of all Oxbridge applicants in the coming year.
Of course, it may well be that the candidates they see are already likely to do well. Certainly, they already have the support of parents or a school willing to pay the coaching fee. Cambridge takes a highly critical view of the firm's activities, accusing it of promoting an elitist and specialist view at a time when the application system has never been more open. Oxford has been slightly more relaxed, advising candidates to "save their money", and to read the literature.
Some external factors almost inevitably have an effect. For example, Cambridge admits that some schools have a record of making unreliable judgments or recommendations about their candidates. In contrast, others are known to be trustworthy, particularly if they have a tradition of sending good students. More serious still is the fact that some schools fail to encourage their sixth-formers, or even discourage them from applying.
What about AS-levels and the new advanced extension papers?
Both universities have welcomed AS-levels in principle, but say they are difficult to use as part of the admissions process as many students have not cashed them in when they apply. Therefore, they do not have the same information about all applicants.
Likewise, both hoped the new advanced extension papers could help them choose between applicants. But they say that, as not all schools are equally able to prepare their students for this exam, it would be unfair on many candidates to put particular reliance on AE papers.
What are the independent sector's complaints?
Individual heads and some commentators have complained that colleges are bending over backwards to accommodate state-school students at the expense of privately educated competitors. They can point to figures from Oxford that suggest state-sector students had a marginally higher chance of getting in last year. But figures from Cambridge suggest the opposite. Moreover, such criticism is not shared by the bodies representing the major fee-paying schools, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the Girls' School Association. They praise both universities' attempts to reform their admissions system, and accept that they give out places without bias.
What do the universities say in reply?
That their only criterion is merit. Broadly speaking, students from the two backgrounds do equally well in terms of their final degree results, suggesting, they say, that there is no bias either way.
* Cambridge University Courses and admissions (www.cam.ac.uk. Click on courses and admissions) Undergraduate prospectus (www.cam.ac.ukcambuniv ugprospectus) Cambridge University Students' Union (www.cusu.cam.ac.uk)
* Oxford University Undergraduate admissions: central information (www.ox.ac.ukadmissions) Oxford University Student Union (www.ousu.org)
* Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (www.ucas.ac.uk)
* Oxbridge Applications (private consultancy) www.oxbridgeapplications.com
* The Push Online Guide to UK Universities (independent guide) www.push.co.uk.