The Government's struggle to win the public relations battle over the introduction of university tuition fees and the abolition of grants continued this week as updated figures showed that applications for student places are increasing.
But Scottish universities are still attracting fewer applicants compared with the UK as a whole, and there is evidence that increasing numbers are shunning the first year of degree courses to avoid paying the extra year's tuition charges.
The number of students making at least one application to a Scottish university stood at 68,983 on March 20, compared with 72,277 at the same time last year. This represents a drop of 4.6 per cent against a 6.1 per cent fall in mid-December.
The overall UK decrease is 2 per cent. But Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, seized on the news that applications from students under 21 are running at nearly 1 per cent higher than last year throughout the UK. Separate Scottish figures were not available as we went to press.
A breakdown of applicants into the second, third and fourth years of Scottish degree courses shows numbers are up from 12 per cent last December to 27 per cent now.
The number of English students applying only for years two to four shows a massive 102 per cent rise from 584 to 1,183, against an increase of 80 per cent last December. But the very small figures are said to partly account for the inflated percentages.
Mr Wilson stressed that overall figures are at similar levels to those in 1995 and 1996. Although total applications were down, the fact that over 6 per cent more students were admitted to higher education in 1997 meant that applicants were bound to fall in 1998.
Less welcome for the Government, however, are the figures for mature students across the UK which show there has been a significant drop of 10 per cent in applications from 21 to 24-year-olds and 15 per cent from over-25s. But in December the decreases were wider, 13 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.
A Universities and Colleges Admissions Service spokesman said: "Initial fears that students would be put off applying to university because of tuition fees have not been borne out, as the number of applications continues to grow and the gap with last year is narrowing all the time."
The Government's opponents are unconvinced, with the SNP pointing out that mature students have clearly been hit already. "They are bound to be put off by the prospect of paying off up to pound;15,000 in loans in a career span which is shorter than their younger counterparts," a spokesman said.
Donald Gorrie, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said that it was "contrary to natural justice and common sense that students from elsewhere in the UK should pay more for the same course at a Scottish university than a Scottish, German or Greek student."