In spite of promises from the government and UCAS that university application numbers would not be adversely affected by the introduction of new £9000 tuition fees, the slump in UK applicants has continued. With the January 15th deadline fast approaching, there are still an enormous 23,000 fewer UK applicants registered with UCAS than at this time last year.
Both UCAS and the government have tried to play down the figures, pointing to the fact that overall applications are not dramatically reduced. But looking more closely at the difference between the figures for UK and overseas applicants reveals a different story, with applications from home students down 7.6%. In addition, it is clear that the introduction of the new tuition fees has had a huge impact on mature students, with think tank Million+ revealing that there has been a significant drop (over 13%) in the number of students over the age of 21 applying for higher education.
Les Ebdon, chairman of Million+, was reported by the BBC News website to have played down the government’s reassurances, explaining that whilst it is all very well to hide behind broad, overall figures, it is extremely important to carefully analyse the data to discover whether specific groups of applicants have been particularly badly affected.
Should this suggestion be carried out, it is extremely likely that the results would show that the new tuition fees have had the most severe impact not only on mature students, but also on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
After the government chose to axe the Education Maintenance Allowance (the scheme that provided modest financial support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue into sixth form) last year, college heads have already reported a dramatic drop in attendance levels amongst the poorest students. They explained that many students simply lack the resources to manage the journey to school each day.
With these figures already having been reported, it is inevitable that there will accordingly be a knock-on effect in the numbers of these students applying to UK universities over the next few years. While the government is keen to play down the current figures as much as possible, it will not be until two years’ time that we will really see the full impact of the budget cuts at the earlier stages of education on university applications. Many of those students applying to university this year will have finished college just before the impact of the axed EMA struck home, meaning that the true reckoning period is yet to come.