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
(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.