More than just academic
This week we learned that applications by UK-domiciled students to university have fallen by 15.1 per cent. Countering an expansion of access to higher education that has seen the number of students applying to university increase by 40 per cent over 10 years, this means nearly 25,000 fewer students have applied compared to this time last year. In response to this, Ucas told us that a fall in demand was expected due to a shrinking young population, but that it was too early to say anything meaningful about the impact higher tuition fees may have had.
This much is true as regards Ucas’ rationalisation of these troubling statistics: the number of 18 year-olds in the UK is set to decline by about 11 per cent over the next decade. So it is reasonable to think this may have some effect on the number of applications, but to claim it can significantly account for a 15 per cent fall in applications is just bad maths.
To emphasise that it’s too soon to blame the rise in fees, Ucas point to those universities and courses for which the deadline has already been and gone. They note that applications from 18 year-olds (who comprise about half of all applicants) to Oxbridge and to all medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses have actually increased by 1.1 per cent – clearly not every student has been discouraged by the inflated cost. But it’s not difficult to see the logic in this. As the financial return on a degree is squeezed by raised debt, it is reasonable that applicants will look to institutions and courses capable of providing a readier return on their investment, rather than applying for what they might really want to do. As it stands, Oxford and Cambridge are two of only four universities whose employment rate six months after graduating exceeds 80 per cent. The high proportion of privately educated students at this end of the spectrum, too, for whom £9,000 a year for education is nothing new, is likely a factor.
Incidentally, parading this tepid increase in applications from a select yet significant group, Ucas eschews the more telling statistic – that applications for these courses from UK-domiciled students in fact fell by 12 per cent overall.
It’s clearly too early to know that a trebling of fees will materially affect the total number of students prepared to apply to university. But certainly a trend is emerging and it’s not down to changing demography, nor is it challenged by a slightly softened impact on elite universities. For Ucas to suggest otherwise is just disingenuous.