A fall in university applicants is a failure for the coalition

Ministers have always wanted more people to go to university. But 38,000 fewer are.

Are higher tuition fees deterring people from applying to university? "Yes" is the answer from the Independent Commission on Fees, chaired by Will Hutton, which has released its first findings today. Applications from English students are down by 8.8% (or 37,000) this year compared with 2010, before the new fees regime was announced. Of note is that the fall in applicant numbers has not been replicated elsewhere in the UK, where fees are lower or non-existent. In Scotland, where home students do not pay fees, applications are up by 1%, while in Wales, where fees are capped at £3,465, they have risen by 0.3 per cent. In Northern Ireland, where fees are also capped at £3,465, applications have fallen by 0.8%. As Hutton notes:

This study provides initial evidence that increased fees have an impact on application behaviour. There is a clear drop in application numbers from English students when compared to their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of some comfort to the government is the fact that there has been almost no decline in applications from poorer students, with applications from the most disadvantaged fifth of the population down by just 0.2 per cent in England. In addition, the reduction in overall applications is partly explained by a fall in the number of young people. But only partly. The inescapable fact is that fees of up to £9,000, the highest public university fees in the world, are deterring would-be students. For the coalition, this is a clear failure of policy. Unlike some Conservatives, higher education minister David Willetts has always insisted that he wants to see more people going to university. In 2011, he said: "It's important that prospective students are not put off applying to university." But the initial evidence suggest that they have been.

The key question is whether this is likely to be a temporary or a permanent reduction. When Labour tripled fees to £3,000, student numbers fell by 15,000 (3.7 per cent) in the first year (2006) but they later more than recovered. Thus, as Hutton says, "it is too early to draw any firm conclusions". But should the reduction prove permanent, the fall in applicants will harm both the UK's long-term growth potential and its levels of social mobility. For Nick Clegg, who has made widening opportunity his priority in government, it is an unhappy prospect.

A fall in university applications could harm Nick Clegg's goal of increasing social mobility. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.