Today the university admissions service announced that the application rate for 2012/13 university courses has fallen by 8.7% on last year’s numbers. After a sudden jump in tuition fees, this is of course, not surprising. This statistic will no doubt be wielded in the argument against the rises (and against tuition fees altogether), a hard fact that stands like a stone in the river of the political rhetoric that surrounds this highly contentious issue.
But, as 19th century Prime Minister George Canning said; “I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.”
It has to be considered that last year saw a record high of university applications at just over 580,000 candidates. Gap years were cut short or cancelled and mature students who had been pondering a return to education were galvanized into action as the last ‘cheap’ year came by. Overall, there was a 5% rise on the previous year. Everyone who cut a gap year short, and each extra adult that took part in this scramble, is one less to apply this year. It could also be noted that more of the top universities have adopted the A* grade more widely throughout their prospectuses, causing a knock on increase in other universities trying to encourage better students to apply, and if not select them as their preferred choice – perhaps as an insurance. This raising of the bar could have also discouraged applicants this year.
However, 8.7% of the previous record high level is still a massive drop. Without doubt, there are people who wanted to go to university this year who did not want to be saddled with up to £9000 pounds a year debt, not to mention the cost of living. University has always been an expensive business, and the tuition rises have only exacerbated the problem.
One of the major concerns about the rises was that students from poorer backgrounds would effectively be rooted out from the system. It is common sense that those who would struggle most to afford university would be most affected by the rises. What made some people especially angry is that the changes were brought in by wealthy, predominantly privately-educated politicians who would never have to struggle to send their children to their university of choice. The counter-arguments are of course the means tested grants and bursaries offered on the basis of income, which have also increased in value. The student loan repayment thresholds have also risen to accommodate the debt most students will be saddled with.
Okay, time to bring us back to the real world with some more numbers. This year’s statistics have revealed a 0.2% drop in the percentage of applicants from the poorest areas of the UK, and as has been the case for many years, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are three times more likely to apply to go to university. However, there has been a fall of 2.5% in applicants from these more affluent backgrounds.
It may be that the fee rise has caused people to reevaluate the value of going to university. Some see it as an obvious follow-up to A levels without any real consideration of the other options out there. It’s well known that not every course is as well-thought of in the jobs market as others, and £27,000 debt for a degree in Golf Management is rightly going to be bad value for money. Perhaps the result will be a pruning of the university system, with the weaker courses (and maybe even universities) falling away in these times of increased competition. As ever, only time will tell.
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