University application rates in England at highest ever for disadvantaged groups, even post-£9k tuition fees

by Stephen Tall on January 30, 2013

UCAS has just released the latest university application figures as at January 2013. The good news is that they show an overall increase of 3.5% across the UK compared to 2012.

The government will breathe a particular sigh of relief that the figure for England only is also positive: a 3.0% increase in applicants in the second year of up-to-£9k tuition fees operating.

Here you can see the application rate trend over the past 10 years by country:

figure_1

At least as importantly, there is no sign of disadvantaged young people being put off applying to university by fees (despite the heavily negative coverage of ‘fear of debt’ etc). In fact, application rates from disadvantaged areas are at their highest level ever:

figure_6

What levelling off there has been is in fact among the most advantaged groups in society:

figure_7

You’ll notice I’ve used the application rate as the key data series. That’s for a very good reason. The absolute numbers of applicants to university fluctuate according to the population size of 18-19 year-olds (who comprise the majority of applicants).

This is pretty unsurprising. What’s more surprising is quite how steep is the decline in absolute numbers of 18-19 year-olds:

figure_17

So take with a very large pinch of salt those who use absolute numbers to make their argument on university applications (whether pro-fees or anti-fees) because the application rate is a much more robust measure.

Though generally good news, there are worries within the figures. For example, applications from potential mature students (ie, aged 25+) are down, albeit only to 2009 levels. And we still have a ‘boy problem’ with significantly fewer men going to university than women.

I’ve long been pro-fees (see my post here: The Coalition and Tuition Fees: history may well be kinder (though that may be too late for the Lib Dems)) — but the sudden hike to £9k was still a journey into the unknown. There was a risk, despite the progressive nature of Vince Cable’s scheme, that it would hit university applications hard, especially among low-income groups. It’s still early days. These are provisional figures, and we still have only two years’ data.

But the early evidence is encouraging: students see university as an investment in their future (rightly), and universities now have far greater resources available to invest in their students.