Martin Lewis, head of the Independent Task Force on Student Finance Information, has been reported by the BBC news website to have declared “a crisis point for university applications”. UCAS figures prove that university applications are down by 13% compared to this time last year, with 23,427 fewer students having applied.

Government excuses

Government ministers have been keen to play down allegations that the slump in applications is due to their plans to raise fees to £9000, with Universities Minister David Willetts claiming that it is too early to predict what the final figures may be. UCAS agrees, with Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook claiming that early figures may not be true indicators of final numbers, and that the admissions body is prepared for a last-minute surge in applications. Yet the government has not acknowledged the fact that if this is true, it is likely to be a result of the chaos created by their last-minute tampering with the higher education policy, which has left many universities changing funding arrangements and fee levels at the last minute, and prospective applicants in the dark. Neither has Willetts admitted that this financial uncertainty is likely to hit disadvantaged pupils and applicants from the poorest backgrounds hardest.

Labour Promises

While the government resolutely sticks to its tagline, insisting that the new fees system will be “progressive” and “fairer” for everybody, Labour Shadow Higher Education Minister Shabana Mahmood has made an impressive promise to disillusioned student voters. She vows that a Labour government would reverse the banks’ corporation tax cut, using the surplus funds to lower the tuition fees cap to £6000.

A Financial Marketplace

Sally Hunt, on behalf of the University and College Union, has raised awareness of the worrying trend that the drop in admissions figures indicates. She has publicly lamented the fact that late confusion over fees and funding support at different universities is likely to lead students to ‘shop’ for the best deal, rather than looking for the university and academic course best suited to their interests and talent.

Mature Students Worst Hit

Meanwhile, Professor Les Ebdon, chairman of the Million+ group of universities has pointed out another serious problem, reporting that a significant proportion of the percentage drop in applications is represented by mature students, who no longer feel able to afford to go back to university or retrain due to the debilitating £9000 tuition fees.
Whether these statistics will remain as severe once the applications period is closed remains to be seen, but much may depend on the government’s actions between now and then and on whether or not the chaos surrounding fees levels is resolved in time for applicants to make informed choices about their future in education.