Coffee House

University applications fall 8%. But is that bad news?

28 November 2012

4:17 PM

28 November 2012

4:17 PM

University admissions service UCAS published figures today showing the number of students applying early for university has fallen by 8 per cent on last year, following a drop of just under 13 per cent the year before. ‘Oh dear,’ tweeted Times Higher Education’s news editor Simon Baker, adding that these figures are ‘worrying’ while NUS president Liam Burns said the data meant the government ‘should now finally admit that its higher education policies are having a significant impact on application behaviour’.

Universities themselves might be worried about the effect on their business models of a decline in the number of students, particularly for undersubscribed courses. But are these figures really an unsettling indication of the effects of the government’s higher education reforms?


It depends slightly on whether you believe that as many young people as possible should go to university, or whether there are other constructive ways to enter the world of work. Either way, an 8 per cent drop is actually rather small given the size of the hike in tuition fees.

But what is more important than an overall drop in the number of students applying (and UCAS is clear in its statistical release that ‘percentage cycle to cycle changes in November each year have historically been a poor guide to percentage changes in applicants at the 15 January deadline’) is whether pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are being put off by the cost of a degree. The latest figures that we have on this are actually pretty encouraging: the Independent Commission on Fees reported in August that while the groups with the highest and second highest participation in higher education have seen the biggest drops in applications: at 8.3 per cent and 8.8 per cent respectively, those from areas with the lowest participation only fell by 5.1 per cent.

If next year’s figures show a similar trend, ministers can take heart that the dire warnings about universities becoming institutions for the rich while poor students cower in fear at the price of a degree haven’t come to fruition.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • boonteetan

    With fear for not getting any job (let alone suitable one) looming over the horizon in the coming years, one would certainly hesitate to fork out expensive tertiary education fees just to get a paper diploma or degree. It is better to gain some relevant hands-on skills and experience in the mean time. (btt1943)

  • TomTom

    The House of Commons has much worse demographic diversity than Universities… really is a well-heeled administrative elite sitting on those green benches……

  • TomTom

    Depends on the 8% and who they are. If they are the highly educated seeking education abroad it may be a loss. If they are Physicists, Chemists, Mathematicians, Engineers they may be a bigger loss than if they are potential students of Law, English, French, Art History, Nursing…… try to be more specific with these percentages


    In late 60s after building of ‘plate glass’ universities about 1/10 population went to UNI. I think 1/5 maximum are suitable for true HIGHER education i.e. being capable of SUSTAINED ORIGINAL written work.

    I believe the Tories rechristened polys ‘universities’ (and GRADE INFLATION started under them + massaging unememployment figures by putting people on INCAPACITY benefit – clearly the latest generation have seen the FOLLY of some of this).

    Encouraging the young to spend time doing WORTHLESS degrees and exposing them to the relaxed lifestyle of UNI,when the work ethic is the major reason for employers to RECRUIT, is HARMFUL, particularly as there is a lot of evidence that bad early experiences in the labour market can still be having an impact DECADES later.

  • clare62

    Just as a matter of interest lower income families do not all inhabit low participation areas. They can be found in participation areas of all types across the nation. Secondly I do think it is a bad thing if our country deliberately aims to lower the numbers of British graduate workers as we are in fierce competition with countries who already have much higher participation rates than we have currently. Thirdly there is not a lot yet in place to provide a valid alternative. I am all for advanced apprenticeships models and the like but they are not available in any number or indeed in any great variety.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    The latest figures that we have on this are actually pretty encouraging: the Independent Commission on Fees reported in August
    that while the groups with the highest and second highest participation
    in higher education have seen the biggest drops in applications: at 8.3
    per cent and 8.8 per cent respectively, those from areas with the
    lowest participation only fell by 5.1 per cent.

    That sentence doesn’t actually make sense. To start with one seems to be talking about financial status of the provisional students and in the latter part about the geographical areas from whence they come. Why is it encouraging that applications from any particular area have changed? Surely the issue is whether or not those kids with the academic aptitude and genuine desire to attend University (wherever they come from and whatever financial backround they have) actually attend University. Surely, having a geographically or demographically equalised attendance at University has no advantage except in the somewhat deluded minds of overly-obsessed equality junkies.

  • Troika21

    Whilst Isabel is right to ask if so many should go to University, it really is the only way to demonstrate an education these days.

    Universities have expanded at the cost of local colleges which could have once provided a firm foundation for work and learning, but that is no longer the case.

  • wrinkledweasel

    Of course too many very unsuitable people go to university. A lot of them end up with third class degrees and end up as teachers.

    Elitism works. Elitism is good. Ultimately everybody practices it and chooses the best of the best. Lowering the bar will never change that.

    Best not to give the no-hopers false hope that by doing a degree in multi-culturalism at Luton “University” is going to do anything other than to encourage them to apply for jobs in the public sector, thus perpetuating what is, after all, an exercise in educational pyramid selling.

  • Daniel Maris

    Isabel, if you remember, you mocked Farage for saying that too many people end up as university students and that we can fund university education more effectively if we reduce the numbers.

    Perhaps this is your way of saying sorry.

  • R2-D2

    We are far too fixated on class. It does not matter whether these 8% are rich or poor but whether they would have had the ability to benefit from a university degree. If our best youngsters do not go to university, we lose.

  • Colonel Mustard

    How is “One Nation” from the Party that brought us devolution to be reconciled with English students paying fees whilst Scots students don’t have to? Has anyone asked Mr Miliband this question?

    • TomTom

      It could be “Ein Volk”, or perhaps “Socialism in One Country”, or perhaps “National Socialism” – who knows what political slogans really mean – “ONe Nation Under God”.?…hardly from these drips

      • Coffeehousewall

        Labour’s National Socialism is never about how it affects the electorate, and is only about whether or not power can be gained and retained. As with all party politicians, National Socialists will say anything. They only need to be believed for a moment or two. If asked about student fees the National Socialist leader will say that he is deeply troubled and if given a chance will do something about them. This of course does not mean he will, or ever had any intention of doing so. The voter knows this, but is playing the game.

  • anyfool

    That fees have reduced applications will be nothing to do with being poor unless they are to stupid to realise it would be free if they did not get a decent job in their life, but more likely students have looked at the rubbish on offer from some universities and just walked away.

    The only pity about this is they are probably some of the most intelligent as they have worked out future possibilities as compared to financial realities.

  • DavidDP

    It may also be worth pointing out that the rise in fees has prompted the development of “professional apprenticeships”, such as the KPMG scheme which takes school leavers directly into accountancy training schemes. These will be of more interest to some people that may otherwise have taken the route to accountacy via uni.

    • telemachus

      Those going into KPMG are sons and daughters of the middle class and rich
      University is the traditional egalitarian route to betterment of the poor kids done good. These folk are now being put off and denied.
      The divide in society widens

      • Andrew SW18

        That fatuous statement needs to backed by hard evidence.
        In your own time…

        • telemachus

          No evidence needed beyond looking at the social demographics of university entrants

          • notme3

            who commissioned the Browne report into higher education funding? Who set up its terms of reference? Who chose who would sit on it? And, who would have accepted its recommendations just like the Government did?

            • telemachus

              Like today
              Cameron commissioned Leveson but will he adhere to the findings?

            • TomTom

              Lord Browne childless scion of the Establishment responsible for the deaths of 15 in Texas City Refinery with his culture of Safety Costs so Cut It Down

      • DavidDP

        Given universities traditionally accounted for about five percent of the population, that can’t be true to a huge extent. It would however be helpful if you could provide a link to some evidence that its the middle class and rich that are going straight from school into work, particularly as this route always tended to be favoured by those from poorer backgrounds (apprenticeships and the like).

        Further, if you are worried about people being put off, then your ire should be focused on the unions and those like them that have failed to point out to those from poorer backgrounds that they wouldn’t have to pay fees and even if they weren’t so poor that this applied, they would be paying only after they graduated and only when they began earning what is by most accounts a decent wage. If you consider that is a deterrent, then you must be in favour of low taxes, since it is, for all intents and purposes, a graduate tax.

        • TomTom

          It used to be 15% not 5% and it was not uncommon for Merchant Bankers to have CVs with Eton and The Guards……so your piints are specious. It was common for Aristos to by-pass University. It is true that poor boys like Zac Goldsmith did not go to University after Eton, like his poor father who also went to Eton and by-passed University. No doubt there will be measures to help male Goldsmiths go to University – Jemima dropped out of Bristol in 1995 but managed to graduate in 2002…….so that shows social progress in one poor family

  • Leigh

    Poorer people are being put off applying to university, but just at a slower rate than those in higher income groups. Hardly worth “taking heart” in that.

    • DavidDP

      The stupidity is that the poorer income groups are more likely to benefit from reduced loans and, further, that the costs being imposed are paid back only when they are earning at a high enough level (a tax, for all intents and purposes).
      Indeed,it’s a perfectly valid scenario that a higher income group student goes to a poorly paid job in academia never having to pay off the loan, while a low income group student moves to a highly paid professional career allowign them to payoff the loan wih little trouble.
      I blame the unions for their campaign of misniformation over this. The scaremongering has put off people who might otherwise have realised they could indeed go without significant financial penalty.

      • Rahul Kamath

        You are substantially correct here. The govt were fools to market this as a “loan” program. It is no such thing. It is a tax, or otherwise a loan with a valuable free insurance policy against your education investment not working out. If students can’t figure this one out, maybe they are too thick to go to university?

  • David Green

    Funny how posh people who have had the very best education are trying to suggest that not everyone will benefit from it. One really must try harder, when it come to spreading privilege.

    • DavidDP

      Spreading privilege is not limited to university attendence. For example, moving straight to a profession will do just as well.