As pupils flock reluctantly back into school this month, several thousands will be waiting anxiously for the post each morning. This is the time when sixth-formers hear if they have got a place at Cambridge University. For 14,000-odd Oxford candidates, the misery of waiting was over before Christmas, when 1 in 3 interviewees were successful.

Yet there are rumours that Oxford and Cambridge are losing their allure, particularly for the independent-school pupils who make up more than half of each university’s intake. Teachers and pupils agree that Harvard, Yale and Princeton now are first choice for many high-fliers; meanwhile pupils from plush schools opt out from Oxbridge in favour of universities with more up-to-date reputations, bigger student populations or just better night life.

Says Anthony Little, Headmaster of Eton College, “There has been a growth of interest in American Universities.” Adds Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies College, “We have instances of brilliant girls not applying to Oxbridge because they find a course elsewhere that suits them better. We also have girls who get offers from universities like Yale and Harvard alongside an offer from Cambridge and have a tough decision to make!”

At Eton, which got 91 students into Oxbridge in 2007, the numbers choosing the USA remain small, at less than 10% of the year group. But at independent schools outside the five-star establishments which now account for 10 per cent of all Oxbridge admissions, interest in other options is growing, particularly in star subjects.

Sarah Evans, principal of King Edwards’ School for Girls, Birmingham, tells of one student who, despite top grades, turned down her place at Cambridge to read veterinary science because Liverpool is the wowee place for her subject. Teachers point to the international reputations of Imperial College for engineering, Warwick for history and business, LSE for international relations and Southampton for maths.

But for others, it’s enough to put two fingers up at tradition. Look on student social networking site Facebook and you will find, among others, groups with names like ‘Oxbridge rejects’ the ‘I hate Oxbridge society’ and ‘I got rejected from Oxbridge 2007 but who cares it’s their loss anyway’. On this last site one boy has written: “I think the only possible reason anyone goes to Oxbridge is to make themselves feel better for being complete and utter knobs and to find themselves some friends who turn out to only be their friends because they too are complete and utter knobs.”

These rebels cite “too much work”, “too much tradition” and “too many other public-school kids” as reasons to avoid Oxford and Cambridge.

More prosaically, recent research from the Sutton Trust confirmed that although an independent-school education still correlated closely with success in business and the professions, the link between adult achievement and attendance at the two oldest universities has weakened dramatically over the last 20 years.

Recently, the Sutton Trust researched the educational profiles of Britain’s professionals. Comparing

PRIVATELY EDUCATED 2007 (1989 brackets)
Judges 70% (74)
Politicians 38% (46)
Journalists 54% (49)
Medics 51% (51)
CEOs 54% (70)
All 53% (58)

school and university backgrounds of 500 people at the top of their fields with 500 people similarly successful 20 years ago, they found a 5 per cent drop in the number of leading figures educated at independent schools (see box).

But the decline was much steeper when it came to Oxbridge (see box).

EX-OXBRIDGE 2007 (1989 brackets)
Judges 78% (87)
Politicians 42% (62)
Journalists 56% (67)
Medics 15% (28)
CEOs 39% (67)
All 46% (62)

Although top businessmen are now more likely to have degrees than in 1989, most graduated in business studies from a whole range of institutions, not just Oxbridge. More than 35 per cent  now come from overseas backgrounds, compared with 10 per cent a generation ago. Only 21 chief executives in the current FTSE 100 attended Oxbridge.

In some hard-to-enter professions, like medicine, the ancient universities have dramatically lost ground. In their stead, the London universities, particularly Imperial, have gained prestige. Lee Elliot Major, director of research at the Sutton Trust and author of the report, said: “The reason so few medics have gone to Oxford or Cambridge is partly because the grades are so high in every school and the subject is so academically elite that the Oxbridge effect is less strong.”

Paying parents are unphased by this. Sam Freedman, head of research at the Independent Schools Council, said: “For small schools it’s not a key part of their business to get people into the top universities.”

Adds Sarah Evans, “Our girls are discerning consumers. There are so many wonderful opportunities in our universities.” Comments Vicky Tuck, “Life isn’t just about work, for heaven’s sake and they should have fun at university and develop on an emotional level too.”

Two case studies

Bridget is a journalist. She and her husband both went to Cambridge. None of her three sons do.

Biddy: I would have loved them to go. They just get so much more teaching. And lots of pastoral care as well. But it wasn’t what they wanted. Or not what they wanted enough.

Son 1 went to Eton and now UCL, to study Russian. He says: If you went to a private school you don’t want to go to a place heavily populated by private-school people. And I don’t think they are quite the places they were. They’re not up to date like the London universities. And in London you have native speakers all around you.

Son 2, aka Mr Purple, went to Eton and now Bath, to study biochemistry.

He says: After Eton, I didn’t want any more medieval quadrangles, thank you very much. But the setting is not the main thing. And the teaching is not the main thing. Everyone I know says the same: the subject is the boring bit about university. I’m glad I didn’t go to Oxford. I’ve got friends who went there. In Oxford you have to entertain yourself, whereas in Bath you go out. It’s more fun.

Son 3 went to Marlborough and now Sussex to study French and history. He says: I wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. The night life is not important to me but I did like the look of Sussex. Oxbridge was just too competitive to think of: I knew I’d have to work extremely hard just to get in and that once there I’d spend my whole time just fretting about work. And I do think people there are slightly cliquey.

Carol Gregor is a writer. She and her husband both went to Cambridge.

Only one of our three was really a contender. And she wasn’t interested: the course was too old-fashioned, not cross-cultural enough, the colleges too damp and uncomfortable. She said, “I hate it, everyone is so nerdy and weird.” Her best friend is at Oxford and she has visited. I’m so glad I didn’t go, I’m just not that kind of person.”

Our first, who is dyslexic, did get into the pool at Cambridge but didn’t get an architecture place. Now he says, “Thank God I didn’t get in, the place is much too head-in-the-clouds.” He’s at the top place, having gone to Newcastle.

We’d never have dreamed of it for our third, she’s just not academic enough.