MORE STUDENTS from less well-off homes are applying for higher education places while the proportion from affluent households, who pay tuition fees, has fallen, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service says.
The Scottish Executive seized on the postcode analysis as an indication that fees and student loans are not deterring applications. Figures from the Student Awards Agency in Scotland reveal that more than half of students last session did not have to pay anything towards fees, against a predicted 40 per cent.
In its first such analysis, UCAS assessed postcodes against 86 socio-economic factors. The study accompanies its regular tracking of applicants to higher education, which shows a greater decrease in Scotland than in the UK as a whole - 5.4 per cent against 1.7per cent.
The postcode analysis covers 330,000 potential students from England, Wales and Scotland who had applied through UCAS by June 30, the deadline for degree and diploma courses starting in the autumn. There is no breakdown for individual countries.
The findings show that applications are up from groups classified as "low-rise council", "Victorian low status", "town houses and flats", and "mortgaged families". The proportion from "council flats" and "blue collar owners" is almost identical to last year.
The percentage of applicants from the four top earning groups - "high income families", "country dwellers", "suburban semis" and "stylish singles" - is down.
Tony Higgins, UCAS's chief executive, commented: "Lower-
income families are still woefully underrepresented in higher education, but if this study marks the beginning of a trend then we will start to see real change in the social make-up of our student population."
Overall, there were 70,172 applications for Scottish higher education places in universities and colleges in the year to the end of June, a fall of 5.4 per cent. There was an 18 per cent fall in the number of applicants from countries outside the European Union, compared with a decrease of only 7.9per cent from overseas students for institutions in England. Economic difficulties in the Far East is the official explanation.
A UCAS spokesman said there was no indication of why there was such a variation between Scotland and the rest of the country. "The real test will be how many applicants actually take up their places in the autumn. Since individuals can make up to six applications and can apply to more than one country, it is impossible to say at this stage where they will end up."
This time last year applications for Scottish institutions were also down, but 4 per cent more students were actually accepted when the academic session started than in the previous year.
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive described the figures as a "small downturn" which was not significant. There were still in excess of 70,000 applicants making more than 172,000 applications for around 32,000 higher education places.
The Government's chief concern, at a time when ministers are vigorously promoting lifelong learning, will be the 8.7 per cent UK-wide drop in applications from those aged 25 and over. Applications from under-21s, by contrast, are up by 0.5 per cent.
Almost half of HE students are now aged over 25 and the Scottish Executive spokesman acknowledged that their financial needs are different from those of school-leavers. This was one of the reasons ministers wanted to set up the independent committee of inquiry into student financial support, which is being asked to report by Christmas.