Headlines you won’t read today: University applications up this year more than 16%*

by Stephen Tall on January 30, 2012

Yes, you read that headline right: applications to university have gone up by 16% this year — when compared with 2009:

2009 – 464,167 applications (by Jan. deadline)
2012 – 540,073 (+16%)

I’m being deliberately selective, of course. This year’s round of applications — the first under the new fees regime — show a drop of 7.4% compared with last year (2011: 583,546), or a 5.3% drop compared with the year before (2010: 570,556). (Source: UCAS website; also for graph below.)

The point of my misleading headline is simple: headline figures can easily mislead.

My co-editor at Lib Dem Voice Mark Pack has previously analysed some of the underlying questions that need to be asked before rushing to judgement: for example, that the number of 18 year-olds is in demographic decline, leading to a natural fall in numbers applying to university. If you look at the application figures for 17 and 18 year-olds there has been a decline of 2.5% from 2011 to 2012. Co-incidentally this more or less matches the fall in the birth-rate from 1992 to 1993 (18 years ago).

There is also the simple fact that last year’s figures were higher as students rushed to beat the introduction of £9k fees, with fewer opting, for instance, to take gap years — so no surprise then that one of the biggest falls in university applications of any age group is among 19 year-olds (down 12.5%).

The biggest driver behind the fall in university application figures this year compared with 2011 is that fewer mature students have applied to university — as also happened in 1998, after Labour first introduced fees. It’s clear mature students are the most ‘price-sensitive’.

What we don’t know yet from the figures published is the socio-economic effect — ie, have £9k fees had a disproportionate effect on applicants from different income backgrounds? My colleagues at The Sutton Trust have helped establish an independent commission, headed by Will Hutton, to look at precisely this question.

However, the early indications, according to UCAS’s chief executive Mary Curnock Cook, are that those from the poorest backgrounds have not been more put off from applying:

“There has been a headline drop of 7.4% in applicants with a slightly larger fall in England. The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people takes account of population changes. This shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK. Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in the disadvantaged groups. Widely expressed concerns about recent changes in HE funding arrangements having a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups are not borne out by these data.”