University applications in 2012: continuity rather than change?

Well, now we know. Tuition fees affect people’s decisions on whether they want to attend university. We can now start examing the detailed figures for all those who applied through the central admissions scheme, in the hope of entering university this autumn. And because of the rapid rise in tuition fees in England this year, public interest has been intense. In fact, I am amazed that the UCAS[1] website didn’t crash. Now that we finally have them, what do the figures tell us?

 The main message is that not that much has changed. This isn’t the headline news – the BBC led its report with the statement that ‘university applications are down 9%’. And so they are, though in Scotland the fall was only 1.5%. This isn’t great for the universities, but to understand what is happening we need to look, not at the headline, but at underlying trends in participation. A much better way of doing this is to measure the numbers of applicants against the number of people in the relevant age group. And this leads us to a rather different conclusion.

 The 2012 applications figures show that young people are still flocking to higher education. In England, the proportion of 18-year-olds who applied through UCAS fell by around 1%. At 34%, it is now the same as it was in 2010, itself a bumper year, thanks to a combination of the recession and a rush to beat the introduction of fees. And it is still higher than Scotland, where some 31% of young people applied, and Wales, where the figure falls to around 29%.

 Once you allow for the declining numbers of school-leavers in our ageing populations in all three British nations, then, around one third of 17-18 year olds apply for a university place through UCAS. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no obvious sign that the new fee regime has altered this pattern.

 Nor has it had much discernable effect on deterring the least privileged. UCAS has provided figures for application rates among young people living in the one-fifth of areas with the lowest participation rates in higher education. The application rate from this group has risen in Wales and Northern Ireland. In England and Scotland, it has fallen. In all cases, the changes are so slight that they may not tell us much. And they certainly do not represent a mass retreat from the (often unnoticed) pattern of steady growth in demand from this socio-economic group since around 2000.

 As we might expect, the number of Scottish applicants to universities in England and Wales has fallen. There has been a sharp rise in applications to Glasgow University, which has posted relatively low fee levels for non-Scottish UK students; but there were larger rises at Heriot-Watt and St Andrews. Within Scotland, the largest rise in applications was for the University of the Highlands and Islands, admittedly from a relatively low baseline. Harder to explain is the 12% decline in applications to Strathclyde. But some movement always takes place on a year-by-year basis, so I don’t read too much into this.

 There is also some turbulence in people’s subject choices, though it is of course not clear whether this is a consequence of fees. Social science, communications and creative arts are all down, as many of us might have expected; so are applications for languages, technologies and architectual studies, all of which I thought would benefit as students became more canny about their future careers. But none of these are momentous collapses or volcanic eruptions.

 On the other hand, we do see a clear decline in demand from mature students. Compared with 2011, the number of applicants aged 25-9 has fallen by almost 12%, while the numbers of 30-9s and over-40s fell by 10%. Of course, the UCAS figures only relate to applicants for full-time study; we will not know until later this year – if then – what has happened to demand for part-time places.

 There is also a fall in application rates among the 21-4 age group. For England and Wales, the fall is clear, and it continues what we can now see as a downward trend that was already apparent in 2011. In Scotland, by contrast, the application rate among these ‘young mature students’ rose in both years. But the fall should not be overstated: in all of the home nations, the demand for places remains higher among 21-4 year-olds than it was in 2009.

 A quick look at gender tells us that women continue to outnumber men among university applicants. If anything, the gap increased slightly, as in Wales and Scotland the number of male applicants fell while the number of females grew. In England, the application rate fell for both genders, but the fall was greater for men. So the gender gap in British higher education looks set to increase, but this is broadly in line with existing trends.

 Finally, UCAS provides an analysis of demand from overseas applicants. The number of applicants from the rest of the European Union has fallen by some 10%, except in Scotland where it has risen by 6% (and as the number of places is capped, this may lead to pressure for places from home candidates). Irish applicants have plummeted by almost 20%, but the number of non-EU overseas applicants has risen significantly, confounding the expectations of those who predicted that new visa rules would reduce demand from outside the EU.

 Where does this leave us? The first conclusion is that the impact of higher fees appears to have significantly reduced demand from mature students. Part-time students do not apply through UCAS, and they already pay fees in all the UK systems, so can not yet see whether there are similar patterns of reduced demand. But the early evidence suggests that a high fee system is unlikely to favour lifelong learning. Instead, a high fee system will focus increasingly on the recruitment and teaching of school-leavers.

 For the second conclusion is that, so far, there is little evidence in the UCAS figures of a serious decline in demand among young applicants. Be that as it may, the most surprising thing for me is just how little has changed in patterns of demand among the young. Despite my concerns over the system’s turn away from lifelong learning, I am heartened to see the consolidation of growing participation among young disasvantaged people – and starting to think there is something to be discussed over the gender gap.

 There’s still some way to go before we can be clear about what is happening to university participation in Britain. Many mature students apply direct to their local HEI, rather than through UCAS. Part-time applicants don’t use UCAS at all. And 2012 may be a blip for al sorts of reasons; a longer view may show us that participation did indeed fall as dramatically as the fees critics expected, or that demand was as resilient as the government hoped.

 Above all, these data don’t tell us whether fees are a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, my own view is that fees are defensible in principle. There is a strong case for arguing that a universal public service should be free at the point of use, particularly when that service is overwhelmingly a public good. The debate, for me, is then about the way in which the higher education system functions; public funding should promote the public good and secure wider access, but the system remains highly selective in who it takes and the benefits that they gain. But that is another matter.

 Overall, then, it looks at first as though the UK’s higher education systems will face business more or less as usual. In some respects, this is not a surprise. Anyone who teaches new undergraduates knows that most young students are not focusing single-mindedly on their future career. And of course, things might have looked very different if the labour market for 17-18 year olds looked a lot brighter than it does. I have written elsewhere about the role of higher and further education in providing a shelter from the recession for those might otherwise enter the labour market. Although fees may be damaging mature participation, there is as yet little evidence that they are reducing demand among young applicants.

Paper on higher education and the recession available at:

[1] Universities Council for Admissions Services