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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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