Universities in demand?

Yesterday’s headlines on university applications should have read: “Students are not stupid”. School-leavers, clearly and rightly, still believe university is a good investment, despite the fees rise. Roughly 100,000 more people applied to university this year than in 2008.

Some opinion formers, however, have jumped on the 9.9% drop between 2011 and 2012 in the number of English applicants to UK universities by the mid-January UCAS deadline as evidence that the Government’s tuition fees policy has been a failure. But actually, the underlying fall in demand for HE among English school-leavers, the biggest group of applicants to university,has been modest and should not be concerning. Here’s why.

Among the biggest group of applicants –Year 13 students – there has only been a 4.1% reduction. But the size of the cohort of 18 year olds in the UK is much smaller than last year. When you take this population change into account, there has only been a one percentage point reduction in the application rate of 18 year olds from England. What’s more, UCAS shows the drop in the admission rate is in fact less pronounced for students from more disadvantaged areas than those from more advantaged backgrounds, which could in fact help social mobility

The remainder of the fall in demand from English would-be students is explained by the drop in older student applications, which are down by 11.8%. But it’s not clear that this is all bad. It may reflect the current economic climate: voluntarily leaving the labour market to study full-time may be a step too far. Indeed, there was a fall in demand from these students last year, before the tuition fee rise. Also, part-time students, who for the first time will be able to access the loans system to pay their tuition fees, are not included in the UCAS figures.

There’s also another reason, in addition to demographic changes, why the pool of potential applicants is likely to be lower this year. Often young people who miss out on a place in one year reapply the following year. But last year BIS funded an additional 14,000 university places. As the department has explained, these extra places will have taken a significant number of potential applicants out of this year’s figures.

In truth, it’s too early to tell exactly how demand has altered for 2012 entry. This is because, in every year since 2005, around 100,000 applicants have applied to university after the mid-January deadline. But plenty of national and international evidence shows that if an appropriate credit facility is in place, fee rises do not do much harm to demand for higher education.

The problem is not fees.The debate needs to move on from this. The real problem is that, even with the slight fall in demand this year, the number of applicants still outstrips the number of available university places. This is an unnecessary misfortune for the unlucky individuals deprived of the opportunity to go to university, despite being qualified.

The capping of places is necessary only because government subsidises the student loans system, and it wants to keep a lid on those costs. But scrapping the cap is crucial to delivering an expanded, fairer and better-quality market for students. The debate needs to move on to talk about who should pay for the cap to go.


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