What’s going on with university admissions?

The latest figures showed an 11% fall in the number of students taking up places at British universities this year. Are higher tuition fees to blame? David Kingman investigates…

Unless you’ve been imprisoned in an ivory tower for the past two years or so, you must know that the Coalition’s government controversial reforms to higher education funding came into force this year.

New students starting courses at English universities this October were the first generation who will be charged fees under the new cap of £9,000 per year, almost triple the level allowed under the system it has replaced. Ever since this reform was first mooted, a multitude of pundits have been waiting with baited breath to get their hands on official data regarding students numbers, to see what impact higher fees have had.

They recently got their wish, with the release of the first official data on the numbers of people who started courses this year. The BBC reported that the figures show a fall of 54,000 students compared to this time a year ago, which represents over a tenth (11%).

At first glance this appears to be grist to the mill for everyone who has opposed the new funding arrangements. Yet are the numbers as simple as they appear – or is there more to them than meets the eye?

Mind the gap (year)

In actual fact, there are a couple of reasons why these numbers need to be treated with caution. First and foremost, it is widely acknowledged that the advance warning of higher fees coming in this year caused a rush for places last year, with more students applying who would otherwise have taken gap years. Secondly, there are also demographic factors which need to be taken into consideration, as there was a small fall in the birth rate during the early 90s recession, which means there are fewer people reaching university age this year compared to last.

Thirdly – and this is where the picture starts to look really muddled – UCAS has indicated that there was an increase in enrolments from less well-off teenagers. According to the BBC:

“The statistics also suggest an underlying trend of increasing applications from poorer teenagers has continued and that more disadvantaged 18-year-olds are getting places in the most academically-selective universities.”

This was the very group of people who most commentators assumed would be most deterred from attending university by the levying of higher fees, yet this doesn’t seem to be happening.

A confusing picture

The confusing messages given out by these figures enabled people on both sides of the argument to claim victory.

David Willetts, the Universities Minister who has been much criticised by anti-fees campaigners for his role as the architect of the government’s reforms, claimed that the total number of people enrolled at British universities this year would be higher than any year before 2010 (partly because of the record numbers who entered during the last few years, when the old fees regime was still in force).

He claimed that “this shows the benefits of our reforms coming through already. More students are going to their first choice institution. Moreover, acceptance rates for applicants from disadvantaged areas increased this year. Our reforms are helping students to make well-informed choices using better information.”

Meanwhile, members of the University and College Union (UCU) – the trade body which represents academics – drew the opposite conclusion, claiming that the fall in the number of new students this year showed the new system was putting people off.

General Secretary Sally Hunt said, “Higher tuition fees forced a scramble for places last year, which simply highlights the unfair nature of the government’s hike in fees. If we are to open up university to our most talented people we need to remove punitive financial barriers.”

So what is really going on? Whilst in principle being charged more to attend university should act as a (socially regressive) barrier to doing so, that isn’t what these figures necessarily show. Just to make the picture even more confusing, applications for enrolment next year are apparently 6% down on this time last year, and are forecast to be at their lowest for six years overall.

It seems the only conclusion you can really draw is that, in order to understand the real impacts of higher fees upon access to a university education, we will need several years’ worth of data – by which time, of course, it will be probably be much too late to change the system again…