A dead cat bounces once only

June 25, 2015

A myth is still a myth no matter how often politicians repeat it. Despite David Willetts’ version of history as told to John Gill, the truth about applications to university from students domiciled in England is in the Ucas figures for May 2015 (“‘I thought – and still believe – that what I was doing was in the interests of young people. But having so many of them so angry...’”, Features, 18 June). They show that 17,000 fewer students applied in 2015 than in 2011 – a drop of 3.5 per cent, not a “bounce back” as I understand the term. The lesson about the impact of high tuition fees is evident in the comparative figures for elsewhere in the UK: for Wales, a rise of 2.2 per cent; for Northern Ireland, a rise of 4 per cent; and for Scotland, which has no fees for Scottish students, a rise of nearly 12 per cent. It is worth noting, too, that this is the first year that EU applications have climbed back to pre-hike levels.

So claims that higher fees have had no effect cannot be sustained on this evidence – the only control group data that we have – since we cannot know what the trends would have been without the increase. To be fair, there has been a decline in the size of the 18+ age cohort, and a reduction in A-level qualification rates after exam changes in England, with more to come. The main collapse has been among mature applicants, another feature not seen elsewhere, as the UK government for England continues to abandon lifelong learning as articulated by David Blunkett in his Greenwich speech in 2000, and then almost immediately forgotten.

Finally, Willetts claims that “we’d had more applications the year before the fee cap was raised”. Yes, but the increase was well under 1 per cent in England, not the “surge” myth still perpetuated by some – indeed, new applications fell by 20,000 – and that increase was also higher in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Perhaps Jo Johnson can have a more balanced perspective on the reality of history, without having to justify his part in it.

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

David Willetts encouraged prospective students to go to university – and so incur a large debt – by telling them of the higher average lifetime incomes of graduates. Lifetime incomes can be known only at retirement, so his data related to graduates who had entered university 45 years or so earlier, when minimum entry standards were much higher. I fear that in a few years we will have many disappointed graduates who are angry that their incomes are not as high as they were led to believe they would be.

What Willetts did was appalling. If it wasn’t dishonest, it was utter stupidity. If people are angry, then they should tell him so; he deserves it.

Tom Nightingale
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

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