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9 August 2012

A fall in university applicants is a failure for the coalition

Ministers have always wanted more people to go to university. But 38,000 fewer are.

By George Eaton

Are higher tuition fees deterring people from applying to university? “Yes” is the answer from the Independent Commission on Fees, chaired by Will Hutton, which has released its first findings today. Applications from English students are down by 8.8% (or 37,000) this year compared with 2010, before the new fees regime was announced. Of note is that the fall in applicant numbers has not been replicated elsewhere in the UK, where fees are lower or non-existent. In Scotland, where home students do not pay fees, applications are up by 1%, while in Wales, where fees are capped at £3,465, they have risen by 0.3 per cent. In Northern Ireland, where fees are also capped at £3,465, applications have fallen by 0.8%. As Hutton notes:

This study provides initial evidence that increased fees have an impact on application behaviour. There is a clear drop in application numbers from English students when compared to their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of some comfort to the government is the fact that there has been almost no decline in applications from poorer students, with applications from the most disadvantaged fifth of the population down by just 0.2 per cent in England. In addition, the reduction in overall applications is partly explained by a fall in the number of young people. But only partly. The inescapable fact is that fees of up to £9,000, the highest public university fees in the world, are deterring would-be students. For the coalition, this is a clear failure of policy. Unlike some Conservatives, higher education minister David Willetts has always insisted that he wants to see more people going to university. In 2011, he said: “It’s important that prospective students are not put off applying to university.” But the initial evidence suggest that they have been.

The key question is whether this is likely to be a temporary or a permanent reduction. When Labour tripled fees to £3,000, student numbers fell by 15,000 (3.7 per cent) in the first year (2006) but they later more than recovered. Thus, as Hutton says, “it is too early to draw any firm conclusions”. But should the reduction prove permanent, the fall in applicants will harm both the UK’s long-term growth potential and its levels of social mobility. For Nick Clegg, who has made widening opportunity his priority in government, it is an unhappy prospect.

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