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9 May 2011

Are ministers really keen to encourage more students?

A fall in student numbers would be one way to fill the £960m funding gap.

By George Eaton

Here’s a stat that didn’t get enough attention when it came out last month: the number of university applicants has risen by just 2.1 per cent in the past year. Given that prospective students have just a year left to avoid fees of up to £9,000 a year, and that youth unemploment stands at 20.4 per cent, one would have expected a surge in applications. After all, between 2009 and 2010, the number of applicants grew by 15.3 per cent.

The relative fall in applications suggests that the government’s decision to triple tuition fees to £9,000 is already deterring pupils from applying. Indeed, a survey last year by the National Union of Students found that 70 per cent of current students would have avoided university if fees had been set at £7,000, with those from low-income households most put off. Given that the so-called “graduate premium” has fallen from £400,000 to £100,000 (and is now non-existent for some of those taking arts courses), perhaps it’s not a surprise.

The universities minister, David Willetts, who has today launched a £1.5m-plus “public information campaign” to explain the government’s reforms to prospective students, is undoubtedly right when he says that some “do not understand” the system, but then others are simply unwilling to pay the highest public university fees in the world for uncertain gain.

And, despite their protestations to the contrary, one wonders how keen some ministers are to encourage student applications. For instance, while still a Times columnist in 2003, Michael Gove wrote:

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The government is about to introduce a new test for those considering a university career. The central question will be punishingly direct. Do you want to run up a debt of £21,000 in order to go to the best British universities? Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good.

In violation of his own party’s manifesto, Willetts has already admitted that there will be 10,000 fewer student places available from 2012. A further fall in student numbers would be one obvious way to fill the £960m funding gap created by the coalition’s botched reforms.