When tuition fee increases were anounced last winter, angry students stormed Millbank. Now, in the first year after they were introduced, the impact can be seen: figures from the admissions service Ucas show that university applications have dropped by 8.7 per cent.
The figure is substantially higher -- 9.9 per cent -- in England, where the maximum fee more than doubled from £3500, to £9000 per year. Scotland and Wales, where the higher fees were not introduced, saw much smaller decreases in applications -- a 1.5 per cent drop in Scotland and 1.9 per cent in Wales. Applications from students from other European Union countries, who would pay the higher fees, also decreased sharply, by 11.2 per cent.
Interestingly, it appears disadvantaged students have not been disproportionately put off. Ucas Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook said:
Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in the disadvantaged groups. Widely expressed concerns about recent changes in HE funding arrangements having a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups are not borne out by these data.
Following a trend of annual increases since 2006, the drop in applications is clearly a reaction to the huge increase in fees. Several reasons have been offered to expand on explanations of the sudden drop. Firstly, it's likely that there was a glut of applications in 2010, as people tried to get into university before the fee rise. Secondly, the number of 18 year olds in the UK is projected to decline over the rest of the decade by 11 per cent. Thirdly, some analysts have suggested that students mistakenly believe they'll have to pay the fees upfront, when in fact they can take a loan which is repaid when they are earning more than £21,000.
This last is the least convincing: it's quite possible that students are unclear of the details, given the rushed nature of the reform. But even if they are fully aware that they can take a loan, the prospect of starting life with debts of £53,000 is more than enough to put people off.