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.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.