UK university applications down 8.7 per cent as fees rise

Applications in England, where fees will hit £9,000 per year, are down nearly 10 per cent.

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.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.