Fees iniquity offers firms an opportunity

February 9, 2012

As per your coverage, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has published its annual figures on applications grouped by subject and region ("Crisis, what crisis? Fall in applicants meets with indifference", 2 February). Among the multiple charts are two datasets suggesting the fearfulness of this generation of students.

As you rightly highlight, with a 9.3 per cent drop in British applications (eliminating Scottish data) and with a greater proportion of students leaving it until the last minute to apply, it is apparent that fees reform and charges of up to £9,000 a year have made young people question the value of a university education. The decline is more acute in less affluent areas, with applications from the North East and South West of England and the East Midlands all down by between 10 and 12 per cent: as genius is not linked to the parental bank balance, this is likely to limit the opportunities for many of the UK's most talented youth.

But the data also present opportunities for a number of sectors, such as electronic engineering, which are traditionally undersubscribed yet in demand by employers. The climate of fear has encouraged students to consider their career paths carefully: vocational courses, such as engineering (down by just 1.3 per cent), medicine (down 3.1 per cent) and law (declining by 3.8 per cent) have escaped major decreases, while traditional subjects, especially the physical sciences (-0.6 per cent), have suffered less than, for example, social studies (-12.1 per cent) and communications (-14.6 per cent).

In 2010, the electronics trade body NMI led a collaborative programme to award bursaries, work placements and skills workshops to the most promising undergraduate electronic engineers, and the participating companies are already reaping the rewards from engaging with the best talent during their education.

The data prove that fees limit social mobility. But as we have demonstrated, programmes that support students at university allow companies to engage with the next generation of employees earlier and reap the ensuing benefits - most notably their employment. For industries that face skills shortages in the way electronics has, these changes to the university system provide an opportunity to attract more of the UK's best talent.

John Moor, VP, design innovation system at NMI, Livingston, West Lothian

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