The number of people applying for university places in the UK is declining. According to the latest figures from UCAS, the number of UK domiciled applicants by May has fallen by 8.6% compared with the same time last year. Most attention so far has focused on the English applications, which are down by nearly 10%, while in Scotland and Wales the fall is aroound 2%.
These figures tell us something about the impact of the rapid rise in tuition fees in English universities. But I am surprised that no one has looked behind the headline figures, because the detail tells us a lot about who is being hit most – namely, mature students.
For the UK as a whole, the fall among 18-year-old applicants is only 2.6%, which pretty much mirrors the fall in the number of 18-year-olds in the population. In England, the number of 18-year-old applicants fell by 4%, which is a bit higher than then fall in the wider population. We still don’t know whether fees are deterring youngsters, as there are other factors at work, but if they are, then they aren’t deterring very many.
Mature applicants, on the other hand, are in freefall. The number of applicants aged 21 or over fell by over 10% compared with last year. Definitely not good news for those who wish to see higher education play its part in a wider system for lifelong learning.
This is not the full picture, as people looking for a part-time degree rarely apply through UCAS. Many people who want to take a shorter course in higher education, such as an HND or a Foundation Degree, will also apply directly. So we need to look at what happens to demand from adults for these courses before we reach a firm conclusion.
Incidentally, the figures also tell a few other stories. They show a huge drop in demand for modern languages, especially non-European languages, so you can confidently expect that a future government will berate the universities for failing to produce enough language graduates.
They also show that the trend for people to apply to universities inside their home nation is now entrenched, while only Scotland remains an attractive destination for students from the rest of the EU. This will have longer term consequences for the informal learning that goes on informally within higher education.