After much speculation and contradictory predictions, figures released by the university admissions service UCAS have finally revealed the truth about this year’s university applications. As many predicted, the overall number of students in England applying for university has dropped dramatically by almost 9%, but supporters of the new tuition fees regime claim this is a much lower figure than that predicted by their opponents.
When the government revealed plans to raise tuition fees to a maximum of £9000 in 2012 there was a public outcry, especially when almost all universities in England announced their intention to charge the maximum amount. Protesters claimed that the measure would prevent the most disadvantaged students from applying to university, leading to a social divide where the richest would have the privilege of higher education whilst the poorest would be forced straight into the workforce after finishing school at 18.
Whilst it is true that the drop in applications this year has not been as dramatic as some predicted, it is nonetheless a considerably large figure. 9% might not sound enormous, but broken down into individual statistics, that represents a significant 43,473 students fewer who have applied for places this year. In addition, it must be taken into account that university application figures had until now been rising year on year, meaning that the drop in applicants might be considered even greater than the percentage figure we have been given, which only takes into account last year’s numbers, rather than the total that might have been projected for this year had the trend continued.
More worrying still are the specific demographics affected by the cuts. The government has been swift to point out that the drop in applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds is low. They have given the figure that these applications are down by just 0.2% but it is not clear how this calculation has been measured. If it takes into account only pupils who receive free school meals, a common determiner of disadvantaged status, then there will be a great many students from poorer areas who may still have been deterred as a result of the fees, but who will not have been included in this glib statistic.
In addition, mature students have been extremely badly hit by the rise in tuition fees, with the statistics showing that applicants over the age of 20 were some 12% down compared to last year. Meanwhile commentators fear that the striking dip in admissions will see England falling behind its competitors, not only globally but also closer to home, with the drop in our university applications a shocking 50% greater than that seen across the rest of the UK.
The private BPP college, which charges only £5000 tuition fees per year has reported an enormous double crop of applications, whilst UK applications to universities abroad have also increased dramatically. So just because the statistics suggest that the most disadvantaged students have not been deterred from university altogether, they do not mean a financial hierarchy has not begun in higher education, with the wealthiest able to afford degrees from the most prestigious universities and the poorest settling for less well-known courses at less highly-respected institutions.