Universities are booming, new UCAS figures show

David Kingman reports on the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which show that more young people than ever are entering higher education – but who is thinking about the cost?graduation

If it were possible to purchase stock in Britain’s universities then now might look like a good time to do so, based on their remarkable ability to attract new customers. UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (the centrally-administered admissions service which students have to use to apply to most undergraduate courses in the UK), has recently released new figures showing that the current academic year has been their busiest ever.

Overall, a grand total of 512,400 people secured places at UK universities through the UCAS system in 2014, an increase of nearly 17,000 on the year before. This is interesting, for two reasons: first, because who they were and where they came from says something about the changing picture of who goes to university in the UK, and second, because it makes the looming issue of how funding so many places will be paid for even more urgent than it was before.

Who goes to British universities?

UK universities, particularly the most selective ones, have long suffered from accusations of social exclusivity. This picture is still depressingly true, up to a point. However, the latest data showed that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are having more success than ever before at gaining entry to higher education.

Record numbers of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds managed to gain entry to university, with the number rising 11% compared with the year before. Although they were still less likely to get into the most selective universities than their peers who came from wealthier backgrounds, the trend is significant enough to have been branded “a stunning account of social change” by UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook, who said the “difference in entry rates between rich and poor” had fallen to “historic lows”.

A fascinating trend revealed within these figures is that, while universities may be becoming less socially exclusive than they have ever been before, gender inequalities are rapidly rising – except they are now in women’s favour, unlike in the past.

Among 18 year old applicants (most people apply while they are in their final year at school, when they are 18), over a third of women were allocated university places compared with barely a quarter of men, the widest ever gap between the two since UCAS began collecting such data.

Strikingly, there is a gap of over 50% between rates of female and male university participation in a quarter of parliamentary constituencies. Of course, the success of female applicants is a very welcome development, but it could mean that efforts to achieve gender equality in higher education now need to pay more attention to addressing the educational under-achievement among young men.

How will it all be paid for?

The backdrop to these remarkable statistics was the announcement last year by Chancellor George Osborne that the cap on student numbers would be lifted. As a result, 85% of all applicants were offered a place somewhere, including significant numbers of candidates with relatively low A-level results; for example, the UCAS data suggest that 70% of applicants who had DDE grades received offers, which raises the question of whether universities may be diluting standards in the rush to dole out places and access the funding which comes with them.

Clearly, this is a tricky area. On the one hand, it will undoubtedly be for the best if record numbers of young people are able to enjoy the unrivalled range of opportunities to broaden their horizons that attending university brings, and can look forward to the prospect of a rewarding and well-paid career at the end of it.

On the other hand, if the rise in admissions is largely the result of universities becoming less discriminating about who they let in then it raises the prospect of more students enduring the misery of struggling to keep up and possibly dropping out in the long run, which is hardly a good thing. It must also raise the question of whether the labour market will ever be able to absorb so many graduates: many of them could find that their investment in higher education turns out to have been an expensive mistake if they end up working in non-graduate occupations instead.

Looming over all of this is the question of how it will all be paid for. George Osborne originally claimed that the removal of the cap on numbers would be funded through a sale of the student loan book which is no longer going to take place, while the most recent estimates suggest that up to 45% of the money lent out in student loans will never be paid back. The achievement of broadening access to higher education to more and more people ought to be something to celebrate, but it has undoubtedly come about at the risk of leaving a massive debt for future generations to pay back.