Yesterday’s Ucas figures showing the total number of students applying for university places are hardly a cause for concern. The 8.7 per cent decline can be attributed to a surge in applications last year in anticipation of the fees hike coming into force. A similar pattern was observed with the introduction of the top-up fees legislation in 2004. After an initial boost to application numbers in 2005 to avoid the fees, numbers fell back again in 2006 but continued on an upward trajectory thereafter. Looking only to UK 18-year olds (the largest group of applicants) the decrease in applications was a mere 3.6 per cent.
In 2005/06 the decline in applications was seen to fall equally across different socio-economic groups. There were fears this time around that given the scale of debt they will face – up to £27,000 compared to a total of £9,000 for a three-year degree until last year – poor but able students would be deterred from applying for higher education. In the event, the figures actually showed a slightly larger decrease in applications from more advantaged students according to Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas. That the changes have not fallen unduly on the disadvantaged is to be welcomed, but the Government still has more work to do regarding access to higher education.
Under Britain’s student fees system, no capable student should be prevented from attending university by fear of debt. Favourable interest rates relative to market prices, repayments tied explicitly to ability to pay, and the waiving of outstanding debt after 25 years – all of this amounts to a very generous subsidy for our young people in higher education. If any single student has been dissuaded from applying to university by the fees increase then the failure is one of advertising, not policy. To ensure that all of those who can do so succeed in fulfilling their potential – something that entails benefits both for the individual and society – the system and its generous provisions need to be aggressively marketed.
Universities themselves also have responsibilities in this regard however. While all universities advertise their institutional bursaries and supports to some extent, often this information is made available to students at the wrong stage in the cycle or even after the student has started their course at university. Institutions do not tend to focus their financial support information on the pre-Ucas application period, when such information would be of most use to students making decisions about where to apply. Confusion about the operation of the financial support system has led to often low take-up of bursaries and there is a need for vastly improved information and advice about bursaries, as recommended in our 2010 Policy Exchange report More Fees Please?
Ultimately, the fees increase is likely to have had the effect of forcing potential students to think much more carefully about their needs and choices in higher education. If this decline in application numbers also forces universities to up their game and ensure that qualified applicants are not deterred from higher education for the wrong reasons then that is all to the good.
Dr. Owen Corrigan is a Research Fellow in the education unit at Policy Exchange.