Is there a university applications crisis? Are potential applicants to degree courses in the UK getting cold feet? Last year was the first year that applications through UCAS fell, since the government changed the funding and fees structure for universities in 2012. Overall numbers were down around 5% on 2016. And, according to iNews, universities are “braced” for a similar year-on-year reduction again in the 2018-19 cohort, with estimates immediately before the closing date suggesting applications might fall again by another 5%.

What’s behind the fall?

That’s quite a question, and it’s not a simple one to answer. One of the factors that is easy to overlook, amid debates about the economic and political climate, is an altogether more mundane fact: there are simply fewer British 18-year-olds now than there have been in the last few years, and than there will be again in a few years’ time! The reasons for this are complex too, but the number of babies born in any given year varies more than you might think, and the late nineties and early 2000s saw a steady decrease in birth rates followed by a rapid – and mysterious – rise in the first decade of this century.

But lean childbearing years aren’t solely to blame – and Brexit inevitably comes to the fore once you dig into the economic and political contexts. In particular, one stat that leaps out of the figures for 2017 applications is the 5% year-on-year drop in EU applicants to study in the UK. The causal relationship between Brexit – and the continuing uncertainty about EU citizens’ rights once the UK leaves the EU – is pretty obvious and straightforward here. But as we’ve reported on a number of occasions, enthusiasm for UK degree courses among non-EU international students remains apparently undimmed. The increase in non-EU applicants in 2017 outweighed the decrease in applicants from the EU, meaning 2017’s overall figures specifically for non-UK applicants increased.

Crisis in recruitment for nursing and teacher training programmes

But this is only part of the story. While the numbers of applications may have fallen across the board, it’s difficult to understand this fall if you only look at overall trends. What’s more alarming are the collapses in applications that are been seen in specific disciplines – especially nursing and teaching. The dramatic fall in applications to nursing programmes is arguably the greatest and most immediate cause for concern, amid an NHS crisis that sees 10% of nurses leaving the profession annually. The abolition of NHS bursaries in 2017 is of course a major contributing factor in the drop in applications, but universities also attribute it to falling morale, pay, and working conditions in the NHS itself.

Prospective employment conditions after training – along with concerns that pay post-graduation will be insufficient to service the volume of debt acquired while obtaining the necessary qualification – may also be a factor in the even more dramatic fall in applications to postgraduate teacher training programmes, with a staggering 33% fall reported in a single year between 2016 and 2017. While a range of incentives – including starting bonuses when teachers start their first jobs to bursaries targeted at certain high-need subject areas – have been offered in an attempt to reverse the downward trend, The Times reports that starting salaries and better working conditions are luring an increasing number of prospective teachers to the private sector.

The cases of nursing and teaching demonstrate the degree to which Higher Education in the UK – for all that universities increasingly take a proactive role in marketing and recruitment – is a hostage to fortune. It’s not only macroeconomic conditions that shape the enthusiasm of prospective students to take on the workload and financial burden of a degree or postgraduate course. Very often, especially for traditionally vocational subjects, young people are looking at their prospect of happiness and prosperity in jobs that lie at the end of the course. And increasingly, these young people simply aren't convinced that this is what they'll get. It's an unfortunate circumstance for Higher Education as a whole, but especially for universities that specialise in dedicated, career-focused training programmes.