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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.