Some universities are seeing record applications for entry in 2013 as students seek out the best-rated courses, despite an overall 7% fall so far across the sector.
Exeter University said applications from students in the UK and other European Union countries were up by 18.8% and at record numbers. Reading University has seen a 13.5% rise from British students.
The 7% overall fall halfway through the admissions process, however, will be deeply worrying for ministers if borne out in final figures.
There is no simple split between elite research institutions and new universities. Manchester and University College London have seen falls, but numbers are up by 26% at the University of the West of England in Bristol.
Chris Ramsey, headmaster of King’s School, Chester, and universities spokesman for the HMC group of independent schools, said universities were trying to woo pupils.
“Vice-chancellors are writing to heads saying: we want your best candidates,” he said.
By Jack Grimston and Joseph Pali, Sunday Times. Click here to read the article © Sunday Times