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.

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It's official, Brexit means breakfast — or at least as far as John McDonnell is concerned

The shadow chancellor is not the first politician to confuse the UK's EU exit with the morning meal.

Who doesn’t hate a chaotic breakfast? As the shadow chancellor John McDonnell clearly knows, there is nothing worse than cold toast, soggy cereal and over boiled eggs. The mere thought of it makes the mole shiver.

In the middle of a totally cereal, sorry, speech this morning on Brexit and its impact on the economy, McDonnell expressed his fear that the government was “hurtling towards a chaotic breakfast". 

Addressing the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, he argued that Theresa May’s government could decide to opt for a Brexit deal that favoured Tory “special interests" at the expense of the rest of the country.

Warming to his theme he accused Tory cabinet ministers of looking to “cook up” deals for their “friends in the City of London”, before making the powerful point that "Tory voters don't want a bankers' breakfast any more than I do". Bang, the same foodie blooper dropped twice in one speech. It seems that breakfast really does mean breakfast, or at least as far as McDonnell and the Labour Party are concerned.

He can take solace in the fact that he is not the only politician to fall into this particular verbal trap, it seems a fear of a lousy breakfast is shared by ministers across the political spectrum. In his speech to Conservative Party conference, Welsh Tory leader, Andrew T Davies, trumpeted the fact that the government would make the morning meal its top priority. “Conference, mark my words,” he said “we will make breakfast. . . Brexit, a success.” The Mole loves to hear such a passionate commitment to the state of the nation’s Weetabix.

And, it’s not just politicos who are mixing up the UK’s impending exit from EU with the humble morning meal. The BBC presenter Aaron Heslehurst was left red-faced after making multiple references to “breakfast” during a live broadcast, including one where he stated that it “had opened up a brave new world for UK exporters”. Who knew?

And there was your mole thinking that the hardest part of breakfast was getting up and out of the burrow early enough to enjoy it. Food for thought indeed.


I'm a mole, innit.