Back of the cab numbers

March 27, 2014

Your editorial “Got value, or taken for a ride?” (20 March) claims that “cab drivers’ views notwithstanding, university applications have held up”. If I were driving your cab, I might contest that claim with a more nuanced response. The Department for Education’s March 2014 update of the Statistical First Release 22/2013 shows that, for England, the number of 18-year-olds in full-time higher education fell by 25,300 – nearly 14 per cent down on the previous year. Numbers of entrants are not “holding up” (if that is “holding up”, so are teenage trousers above the waist, and bum cracks are not on show).

These figures, for a single year, are distorted by shifts in delayed-entry applicants. Let me take a longer view, recognising also that the size of the 18-year-old cohort has shrunk in the past five years. The last year of entry before the turbulence of fee changes was 2010; we might consider that the turbulence has now settled in this third year of the new regime.

Numbers in England are recovering, but from a lower base, and application rates for young students are rising. The January 2014 figures from Ucas do show a rise in total applicants of about 9,500 over the comparable point in 2010. But, within that total, the increase in reapplicants is more than 10,000, so the number of new applicants fell. There was a rise of over 13,000 in international applicants, also more than for the overall total.

The home country figures for new applicants reveal the impact of high fees in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland record minuscule rises despite demographic decline – 80 and 200, respectively; applicants from Wales fell (320), but by less than 2 per cent. For England, the drop has been 7,480 – nearly 5 per cent. The drop is lower for 18-year-olds – 1.5 per cent. It is much higher for older applicants in England, where all age groups over 20 show a fall, despite larger cohort sizes; that contrasts with the other three countries, which had more older applicants. So any commitment to lifelong learning in England has almost disappeared. Finally, the impact of fees is clear in the figures on European Union applicants for the five-year period. For England, numbers are up by 3.8 per cent; for fees-free Scotland by 28 per cent.

For the immediate future, the exam reforms introduced by the education secretary, Michael Gove, will, within a smaller cohort, reduce the proportion of students qualifying at 16 and 18 in England, so cutting demand, which may be why the universities minister, David Willetts, is not expecting numbers to rise as much as might be expected after the lifting of the cap.

Ian McNay
Professor emeritus, higher education and management
University of Greenwich

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