For generations, English students have flocked north to Edinburgh in search of a world-class education. Charles Darwin, the two-time Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and the novelist Bruce Chatwin were just three of the university's most celebrated Sassenach alumni.
But the ancient institution, founded in 1582 and still ranked in the top 20 in the world, has been accused of displaying an "anti-English" bias by favouring applications from Scottish candidates. The university said yesterday that locals were "afforded a small weighting in the admissions selection process" in the most popular subjects.
The confession has confirmed the suspicions of headteachers at two of England's leading private schools. Richard Cairns, of Brighton College, said that all but two of the 27 students applying to Edinburgh from his school were turned down, while nearly half of those who sought places at elite universities in England received an offer.
"Scotland used to have a proud tradition of looking outwards and attracting some of the greatest international minds to its universities," Mr Cairns said. "Edinburgh has opted to turn in on itself and in a manner that strikes me as potentially both illegal and racist. I know how sixth-formers in Edinburgh would feel if Oxford University had a policy of favouring students from the South-east applying for popular subject areas. They would be outraged."
Andrew Halls, the headmaster of King's College School, Wimbledon, in south-west London, said that his upper-sixth students faced a similar problem. "We will be advising students not to apply in future, until they sort out their rather perverse admissions, which appears to be anti-English," he said.
An Edinburgh University spokeswoman said that last year 38.3 per cent of English applicants received an offer and that the number of students from south of the border continued to rise in percentage terms. The most keenly contested subjects were those in the humanities. The university added: "In common with other selective universities, the University of Edinburgh wishes to ensure that highly able students from its local area are encouraged to study at one of their local universities, despite intense pressure on places."
The Scottish Funding Council, which allocates public money to universities in Scotland and last year awarded Edinburgh £77.5m to fund its teaching programmes, said admission policies were "autonomous and independent".
Many elite institutions in the UK operate policies which seek to favour students from lower-income families who have never benefited from higher education.