A drop of 8.8 per cent in the number of students applying for university is surprisingly small, actually, when you consider the size of the hike in tuition fees. Still, the figures released today by Independent Commission on Fees prompted an angry response from Labour’s Shabana Mahmood, who said:
‘The Tory-led Government’s decision to treble tuition fees at the same time as cutting funding for higher education is already putting thousands of people off university who otherwise would be eagerly preparing to start their courses.’
It’s easy to brand this drop of 37,000 applications from the 2010/11 academic year as a failure for ministers who have insisted that the fee rise should not put off prospective students. But it depends whether ministers are concerned that some young people are having a longer and harder think about whether university will actually benefit them, or whether doing a Karren Brady and going straight into work might be better. But one really encouraging point that today’s report makes is that increasing maximum fees to £9,000 a year has caused a smaller fall in the number of applications from from poor and disadvantaged groups than from privileged students. This, after all, was the big fear: that the sums involved would put off those from low-income backgrounds and families with no former participation in higher education.
Instead, 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, while those from areas with the lowest participation only fell by 5.1 per cent. Simon Hughes, for all his hand-wringing over whether or not to vote for the increase at the time, does seem to have done some valuable work to dispel some of the myths about the cost of university in his position as advocate for access to education.
For the Lib Dems, though, the issue has never been so much about access as it is about that pledge the party signed before the general election to scrap tuition fees. That broken promise will remain totemic for the party, regardless of whether the policy proves to be fair for young people in the long term.Tags: Higher education, Tuition fees, UK politics, Universities