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.

Tags: Tuition fees, UK politics, Universities