Today’s UCAS application figures – a look behind the headlines

Interim data for numbers of students applying for university places in 2012 has today been published by UCAS. The 9% drop in applications has unsurprisingly been taking most of the headlines. However, just looking at the 9% decline and attempting to suggests that this is either “good news” or “bad news” for the coalition’s policies is far too simplistic. UCAS themselves say “It is too early in the cycle to extrapolate applicant volumes forward” and I’m sure that view is correct. However, there are some interesting nuggets in the data released nonetheless.

The first nugget is apparent when you compare applications from Scottish resident students (who are not subjected to fees) with those from English resident students (who are). The UCAS press release indicates an overall fall of 11.8% in applications from Scotland and a 12.1% decline in applications from England. On that basis, the claim from Sally Hunt of the UCU that “The government’s fees policy has been a disaster from the start and it is clearly having a serious impact on the choices young people make” is not really borne out by the data.

Interestingly, neither is the claim from the NUS vice-president, Toni Pearce, who is reported in the same BBC article as saying “The indication is that the confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.”

The reason for this assertion? Table 3 provided in the UCAS press release. This shows that the number of applications received has increased from those aged 17 and under by 3.2% and has only fallen by 2.4% in the aged 18 group, which is where the largest proportion of university applications come from.

The biggest decline has been seen where I and others have been predicting it would occur. The potential students who are most put off by the tuition fee increases are those aged 25 or older. Table 3 of the UCAS press release shows that applications are down by 21.4% for those aged 25-29, 22.7% for the 30-39 age group and are down by an eye-watering 27.8% in the 40+ age group.

That fee loans are not available to those studying for equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQs) is almost certainly a major cause of this decline. Sadly, the government now appears to be presiding over a catastrophic fall in such applications and an end to the ideal of “life long learning”. You would have thought that allowing people to re-skill would be a priority too – particularly as the days of the 9-5 job for life are long gone and have instead been replaced with people having 5-9 jobs per lifetime (I’m on my 6th and I still have 20 years to go to retirement!)

The actual picture may, of course, be far worse than this for the over 25’s. Anyone wanting to study with the Open University does not apply through UCAS, but does so directly. So these figures are not included.

On the basis of the figures released today, the shift away by the OU from its traditional intake of mature and ELQ students towards those who are aged 25 and under and studying for their first degree becomes far more understandable, if entirely regrettable.

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