University applications at record high levels post-fees – including from disadvantaged areas – yet again

by Stephen Tall on January 31, 2014

Well, this is all getting very repetitive.

UCAS has published the latest statistics on full-time undergraduate applications to higher education in the UK this year. And yet again it’s shown that – despite the hyperbolic fears of those who said the Coalition’s tuition fees reforms would put young people off applying to university – they are applying in record numbers, including those from the most disadvantaged areas.

Here are three key points from the data:

  • Taking account of population changes, application rates for 18 year olds across the whole of the UK are at, or near, their highest levels.
  • An unprecedented 35% of 18 year olds from England have submitted a UCAS application this year.
  • Young people from the most disadvantaged areas in England are now almost twice as likely to apply as they were in 2004, significantly closing the gap with those from the most advantaged areas over the last decade.

Here are a couple of graphs that back up those points.

First, the continuing rise in application rates in England. Incidentally, notice how the rate has increased faster in England than in either Scotland or Wales, where their devolved governments have intervened (in Scotland, tuition’s free for Scots; in Wales, it’s capped for the Welsh):

university application rates 2013

And here’s the data for applications from young people from disadvantaged areas. Here, thankfully, Scotland and Wales appear to keeping pace with England – which suggests fees aren’t the main consideration for this group of applicants despite the continued use of the term ‘fear of debt’:

university application rates 2013 - disadvantage

university application rates 2013 - disadvantage table

(The graphs/tables above are taken from UCAS’s full report, UK application rates by country, region, sex, age and background (2014 cycle, January deadline).)

Like I say, if this sounds repetitive, it’s because it is:

Here’s my conclusion from that latter piece – it still applies…

1. The introduction of variable tuition fees in 2012 triggered a small, but noticeable dip in applications to university. However, this appears to be a one-year only dip: the 2013 increase in applications is typical of the trend between 2006 and 2011.

2. There is no evidence — despite the fear-mongering of many people — that young people from low-income backgrounds have been disproportionately deterred from applying to university as a result of the increase in fees in England. Indeed, what evidence there is so far shows that the gap in applications between the least advantaged and most advantaged young people is continuing to narrow, albeit very slowly.

3. It is still crucial that the facts about the new fees system are better known. It would be a tragedy if young people end up being deterred through unfounded fears they’ll have to pay university fees up-front, instead of paying them back gradually only once they are earning more than £21,000. A good place to check out the plain facts, devoid of all pro/anti political spin, is Martin Lewis’s MoneySavingExpert Student Loans Mythbusting page, or this YouTube video when he explains the changes to student finance: