The wait is often agonising and stress-inducing. This month, thousands of school-leavers, their parents or guardians, will learn whether they have secured an undergraduate place at their university of choice.

Behind the scenes at the University of Edinburgh, my colleagues have made thousands of carefully-calculated judgments to determine the outcome of every entry. We know that each decision has the potential to change the course of someone’s life.

We are in the fortunate (for us) position of being heavily over-subscribed with applicants, so we know that for every successful candidate there will be a greater number who end up disappointed. The process which every application goes through is complex and fine-tuned, using a mixture of academic assessment, institutional modelling, research insight and – crucially – government policy. The excessive number of applicants for the places available has intensified to unprecedented levels at the University of Edinburgh in recent years.

In 2022 we received 75,438 applications for around 6,000 places. This was an increase of more than 17,000 compared to 2018. Last year we made offers to just a third of those who applied.

I wish to correct a couple of mistaken assertions increasingly levelled at major universities such as Edinburgh. First, we are accused of blocking Scottish-domiciled students in favour of more lucrative, fee-paying students from overseas or the rest of the United Kingdom (known as RUK). This notion is unfounded: the number of Scottish-domiciled students that we can accept is capped by the Scottish Government, an inescapable consequence of its policy to pay tuition fees for this group. We are penalised if we under-recruit, so we always aim to be on target. The number of overseas or RUK students that we take has no effect on the chances of Scottish-domiciled applicants: RUK and international applicants are considered as separate groups.

So Scottish candidates are in no way competing with those living beyond Scotland’s borders. In fact, the funding that we receive for these students is inadequate to pay the full costs of their education and has not increased for a number of years, therefore it is being eroded in real terms. RUK fees have also been fixed and are therefore being eroded. International students pay higher tuition fees and therefore cross-subsidise “home” students. Of course they also help to create a cosmopolitan community at the university, enhancing the experience of all students and staff and spreading the influence of the university worldwide. So it is clear that far from disadvantaging home students, these international students actually help them by subsidising the under-funded costs of university education for home students and also enriching their experience.

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The economic benefits that international students bring to the UK are also clear. Russell Group data show that one year’s intake of international students is worth £25.9 billion to the UK economy.

Second, our policies on giving opportunities to students from less-advantaged backgrounds are often criticised. I refute any suggestion that we are lowering standards: no applicant is accepted unless they reach (and often exceed) our minimal entry requirements, and we know that the attainment and graduate outcomes for such students are very similar to those from more traditional backgrounds. It is true that we give special consideration to students from less conventional backgrounds using a combination of Scottish Government criteria – such as postcodes identified as being within the lowest 20% of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – as well as our own additional metrics to create what we call a “context flag”. Edinburgh has been a pioneer in this activity for decades, and it is one of the aspects of the university I am most proud and passionate about.

One of our Scots Law courses in the most recent intake had so many applicants with these context flags, to whom we guarantee an offer, that they exceeded the total number of places available under the Scottish Government cap. This therefore had the unintended outcome that no students without such a flag were able to receive an offer for that particular course.

Our response to this, to adjust our procedures to ensure that the same does not happen again, has recently been erroneously described as a “U-turn”. It is no such thing – it is simply a calibration to take account of the massively increased number of applicants. There will be no U-turns on our desire to “level the playing field” for less-advantaged applicants whilst I am the Principal.

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We are accused of denying opportunity to more traditional applicants: in a capped system this is to some extent inevitable, but we don’t seek to exclude any group. All I can say to those from more traditional backgrounds that feel hard done by or excluded is that we apologise for that, but significant sections of the population have felt like that for generations until more enlightened admissions policies like ours became active. It is not the case that privately-educated applicants won’t be able to secure a place at Edinburgh. In fact, more often, we have been criticised for having too many students from independent schools.

How might things change? Last year, think tank Reform Scotland proposed that Scottish graduates earning more than the average salary could contribute towards their tuition fees; and government funding to be improved and/or the number cap to be raised. Also, wealthy families in Scotland can currently pay for their offspring to go to university in England or abroad but not in Scotland: therefore talent and money are leaving Scotland. Changing any of this would be a political decision beyond my control, but it is worthy of calm consideration.

We will continue to strive to fill our degree programmes with inspiring minds from a diverse range of backgrounds, countries and experiences. It takes a lot of time and work to achieve that fine balance, but our university, the country and the wider world are all the better for it.

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh