University applications from the UK have dropped by 8.7 per cent, following the controversial hike of fees to up to £9,000 a year in England.
Data published by admissions organisation UCAS showed that applications from Scotland and Wales (where the government pays student fees) dropped by only 1.5 and 1.9 per cent, respectively, compared to last year.
Applications from the rest of the EU – also affected by the fees hike – fell by over 10 per cent, while those from outside Europe, notably from Southeast Asia continued to rise, up 13.7 per cent on last year.
Professor Michael Farthing, 1994 Group Chairman and Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex, said that the system of loans ensures that the rise in fees does not create any barrier to going to higher education. But that message clearly wasn’t getting through to prospective applicants, he said.
“The uncertainty caused by the government’s haphazard approach to reform has not helped. The most telling example of this is the fact that so many universities were forced to renegotiate their fees and financial support arrangements as a result of the government’s muddled plans to relax student number controls,” he said in a statement.
UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook said that the data dispelled concerns that higher fees would have more impact on disadvantaged groups.
“Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in the disadvantaged groups,” she said in a statement.
The drop in applications from mature students, she said, was a continuation of an ongoing pattern.
“Applications from mature groups are also set against a backdrop of increasingly higher Higher Education participation rates at their school leaving age,” she said.
“The indications are that demand for Higher Education will continue to outstrip the number of places available in 2012. Applications are already 50,000 ahead of the number of acceptances in 2011 and last year UCAS received over 100,000 further applications between January and the close of the cycle.”
The data suggests that the gap between men and women going to university – women are already in the majority – looks set to widen.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), described the figures as “very worrying” and highlight the government’s “folly” in raising fees.
“We cannot afford a system that puts people off university if we are to compete in the modern world,” she said in a statement. “Other countries are encouraging their best and brightest to get on, not putting up punitive barriers. This government risks returning us to a time when money, not ability, mattered most for success.”
Russell Group Director General Dr Wendy Piatt, said that the drop in applications was explained by other factors.
“Demographic changes mean there are fewer 18-year-olds in 2012 than in 2011, and we also know there was a peak in applications last year as fewer people chose to take gap years. So overall it is encouraging to see that applications from 18-year-olds, who are the largest group of potential university entrants, are down by just 2.6 per cent compared to last year,” she said in a statement.
Piatt says that in the past, a drop in applications have followed the introduction of higher fees – only to pick up in subsequent years.
“Despite all the hype, fee reforms are unlikely to cause a long-term decline in applications.”
She said she was worried “overheated debates” around university finance had distorted the facts.
“Money worries shouldn’t stop anyone from applying: there are no up-front fees, repayments are only made when they’re affordable and there is generous help with living costs. If you’re good enough to get in, you can afford to go.”
Nicola Dandridge, Universities UK’s chief executive, said that the dip in applications was not as bad as predicted.
“The main issue now is whether students from certain backgrounds have been deterred more than others.
For prospective students, it is important to remember that there is still plenty of time to apply to university for courses starting this autumn. It is precisely because so many applicants apply to university later on in the recruitment cycle that it is impossible to draw reliable conclusions about applications for 2012-13 at this stage.”