The tuition fees effect

University applications plummet by 9 per cent after fee cap is raised to £9,000.

The biggest test of the coalition's decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000 is whether it leads to fewer people applying to university. Despite abolishing Labour's target of sending 50 per cent of young people to university, ministers are insistent that they still want more to go.

But the figures published by UCAS today suggest that fewer will do so. Compared with the same period last year, total applications are down by 9 per cent, with applications from UK residents down by 11.9 per cent and applications from EU residents down by 9.3 per cent (applications from non-EU residents are up by 8.8 per cent).

Fees rise, applications fall

Applications are down by 9 per cent compared to last year 

(Click graph to enlarge)

It's important to note that these are interim figures and only cover applications to Oxbridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, which must be received by 15 October. As Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, points out:

Historically, the application figures at the end of October have proven to be unreliable indicators of the final numbers. It may also be that students are taking longer this year to consider their options.

But the figures do suggest that the fees rise is deterring at least some prospective students from applying (47 of England's 123 universities plan to charge £9,000 for all courses). As the graph above shows, this is the first time that applications have fallen in the last five years.

The only comfort for ministers is that student numbers also fell when fees were raised to £3,000-a-year in 2006 but recovered in subsequent years. But if there is a sustained fall in applications (particularly from poorer pupils) then the policy will be viewed as a failure. As Steve Smith, the recently departed head of Universities UK, told me when I interviewed him earlier this year, "If lower socio-economic class participation goes down, we've made a major mistake".

Update: A commenter (The Law) asks why applications to Scottish universities are also down (by 11.8 per cent) if higher fees are deterring pupils. The likely explanation is that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students, unlike their Scottish and EU counterparts, all pay full fees at Scottish universities.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.