Oxford University has once again seen a rise in the number of applicants for its courses.

Recent figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) show that the number of applications made for undergraduate courses in Oxford this year were up by 12.5% in comparison to 2008.

This is sizeably more than the national average across all UK institutions, which only grew by 9.7% since 2008. In contrast, Oxford’s biggest rival, Cambridge University, saw its rates drop below the national average, with the number of applicants only increasing by 8.2%.

Last September more than 15,000 hopefuls applied for around 3,000 places at Oxford, making 2009 the most competitive year in the University’s history.

Speaking to Cherwell, Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University, described the new figures as “encouraging”.

Rather than relying on its reputation as one of the top universities in the world, Dr. Nicholson puts the growing popularity of Oxford firmly down to the efforts of its colleges and departments.

“The reason why we’ve seen such a significant rise in applications this year is primarily due to a range of outreach programmes and activities set up by the departments and colleges,” he said.

Representatives from Oxford University have been involved in building a number of schemes to encourage applications across the UK, including a series of conferences aimed at teachers as well as students.

“We have run sessions around the country for teachers and guidance advisors to demystify the admissions process so that they can encourage their most able students to apply,” explained Dr. Nicholson in an earlier statement.

Jonny Medland, VP for Access and Academic Affairs at OUSU agrees, “It’s unsurprising that the number of students applying to Oxford has increased in the last year. Oxford is one of the leading universities in the world, and its reputation for delivering an outstanding undergraduate education means that the numbers of applications will increase over time. The active outreach programs which Oxford and OUSU engage in also contribute to the rising numbers of applicants.”

Yet this boost in Oxford applications is unlikely to be solely down to homegrown endeavours. According to the admissions department around half of the recent growth in applicant numbers is due to an increased interest from overseas students.

“Oxford was always my first choice, even over all the American schools,” says Heather Mayer, a US student who turned down an offer from Yale to study Classics at St. Hilda’s.

“I know already what I want to study, I am going to the best place to do it, and I’m getting an experience by going abroad that will serve me well later on. I get to have a new perspective on the world.”

Still another reason why UK students may be being drawn to Oxford is its unrivalled funding provisions. According to bursarymap.direct.gov.uk, a government-run website monitoring the funding opportunities available across the various UK academic institutions, Oxford offers freshers the highest bursaries of anywhere in the country.

First year undergraduates coming from a home with an annual income of less than £18,000 can qualify for the Oxford Opportunity Bursary, a funding grant worth £4,100. In contrast, Cambridge University only offers a bursary of £3,250 for the same income bracket, while Oxford Brookes provide less than half the funding offered by their neighbour, at just £1,800 per student.

Many were anxious when hearing about a rise in applications, but thought this only proves the academic strength of the university.

“Its reputation makes it a scary place to apply to,” commented recent applicant Daher Aden, who nevertheless referred to the university as his “pie in the sky choice”.

Other students welcomed the news, “I think it’s really cool that Oxford’s application numbers are growing,” said Mayer.

“It’s already one of the best uni’s in the world, but to have an expanded application pool is wonderful because it will make the university just that much better.”

Oxford officials say that it is still not sure whether the trend will continue. “It’s hard to tell at this point in time,” says Dr. Nicholson. “There will come a time when the number of students who have the potential grades needed to get into Oxford will plateau.”

Still, others are worried about the growing costs faced by prospective students. In a recent article in The Guardian many Oxford academics voiced concern over the possibility of a rise in tuition fees following the next general election.

“Oxford is becoming more socially exclusive,” commented Dr. Iain McLean, Professor of Politics at Nuffield College. “It costs a great deal to educate an Oxford undergraduate and at the moment this is just not being met.”

According to Jonny Medland it may not just be Oxford University application numbers that are set to suffer if costs do rise, “Any change in the funding of Higher Education could have ramifications for access to universities. There is a danger that prohibitively high fees could lead to fewer applications to all universities, not just Oxford.”