Figures from UCAS, the university applications body, indicate that the number of UK students applying for places at university has plummeted by 12% compared to this time last year, as tuition fees are set to rise to £9000 in 2012. The statistics are corroborated by several independent surveys, whose results show that at least one in ten pupils may be deterred from applying for higher education as a direct result of the soaring fees. But should we be concerned by the drop in university applications? And who has been worst affected by the rising fees?

Impact on mature students

The figures indicate that the most dramatic impact seems to have been on mature students, with more than a 20% fall in applications from those over 25, rising to a drop of 25% for those in their forties. Some commentators have suggested that this might in fact be a positive development for the economy, with fewer mature adults drawn out of the workforce by higher education. However, Les Ebdon, chairman of the Million+ group of universities, pointed out that the reverse is actually more likely to be true, as those who have lost their jobs as a result of the economic crisis may need the boost of new qualifications in order to re-enter employment. He explained that the deterrent of high fees may in fact exacerbate the problem of unemployment in the older generation, explaining that “studying for the degree people need to get the job they want in the future will be particularly important for those seeking to re-enter the labour market after losing their jobs.”

Double blow for young people

Many critics and protesters against the rise in tuition fees have pointed out the unfortunate double blow that is being dealt to education in the UK, as school spending has dropped dramatically at exactly the same time the government has withdrawn its university funding. Some have argued that a drop in university attendees might actually be beneficial, as it may force less academic courses like degrees in ‘David Beckham studies’ out of existence and divert some students who might see university as a ‘free ride’ into more beneficial employment or apprenticeships. But many claim that the huge numbers of A-level students deciding not to go on to university will join those forced out of sixth form education by the slashed Education Maintenance Allowance to create an unprecedented generation of unskilled, unemployed young people.

Top talent moving overseas

Further concerns have been raised by information provided by the surveyed students, which indicated that those put off applying to UK universities by soaring tuition fees were seriously considering attending university overseas instead, thereby making it a strong possibility that the UK could risk losing some of its brightest minds to careers abroad after they graduate. This is particularly relevant because it has been the case for many years that extremely bright UK students have only chosen to apply to Oxbridge instead of the top American Ivy League universities because of the latter's excessive fees for overseas students. Trebling UK tuition fees will dramatically lessen that gap, with the risk that it may push some of the top achievers in the country to consider absconding to elite American universities rather than paying extortionate fees to stay closer to home.

In addition, the statistics suggest that the severe drop in university applications from UK students has coincided with a rise in the numbers of students applying from overseas. Commentators are concerned that this may lead to UK university resources and tuition benefiting foreign students who may then return home to begin their careers, diverting a high proportion of the skilled graduates our universities produce away from the UK job market.

It is still too early to determine the exact impact that the new tuition fees system will have on UK university applications, but these early indications suggest that the coalition government’s financial reforms may cause some very serious problems indeed.