THE Scottish Executive has hailed the latest figures for university applications as a vindication of its new student funding regime. But the reason for its optimism is not immediately apparent from the tables issued by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
There is a clear rise of 2.1 per cent in the number of Scottish students applying to Scottish universities by the end of June, up from 28,190 to 28,775 compared with last year. Yet applications to the other home countries have fallen - by 0.5 per cent for England, by 12.4 per cent for Wales and by 7.2 per cent for Northern Ireland.
Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, said: "The Executive's decision to radically change student funding from this autumn for Scots studying at home universities is playing a significant part in many people's decision to apply."
Mr McLeish went on to point to a 2 per cent increase in the number of Scottish students applying to higher education institutions in the rest of the UK, despite the continued existence there of the initial tuition fee regime.
A spokesman for Mr McLeish explained the discrepancy was because further figures from UCAS had stripped out the number of Scots who had been "double counted", having appliedboth to Scottish institutions and to universities south of the border. This showed that 30,027 Scots had made applications to UK institutions compared with 29,429 by the end of June last year.
UCAS says the figures overall show an increase in the number of students opting to continue to live at home. More than one in six applicants have indicated that this is their preferred option, a 2.3 per cent increase on last year's figure.
Tony Higgins, UCAS's chief executive, said: "Higher education courses are now much more widely available at further education colleges than they used to be, which means many more people can now take a degree or diploma course at their local college without moving away from home."
The FE sector in Scotland has historically played a stronger role in HE than in England largely because of the greater take-up of higher national diploma and certificate courses. Colleges provide a third of all HE studies.
Mr Higgins also said that financial pressures on students accounted for the stay-at-home trend. Costs might also account for a 2.5 rise in applications from those wanting to defer their place until the autumn of 2001, using the gap year to earn money to help pay their way through college or university.