THE government has admitted that the percentage of school-leavers applying to go to university is down, undermining repeated claims that tuition fees and scrapping maintenance grants are no deterrent to participation.
Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, admitted that while the numbers of 18 to 20-year-olds applying to university in 1998-99 have increased so has the population in that age group. The fact that it has done so at a greater rate means that applications as a percentage of the age cohort have fallen compared to 1997.
Mr Bichard's admission casts doubt on government claims that tuition fee and grant policies are not affecting under-21s. Ministers have to date relied upon the simple 1.1 per cent increase in the numbers of under-21 applicants to back their argument. It helped them deflect criticism relating to the 15.1 per cent fall in applicants aged over 25.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster secured the admission as Mr Bichard gave evidence to the Commons' education and employment committee on Tuesday. After the hearing Mr Foster said: "The government is peddling highly selective statistics in an attempt to justify a wholly unacceptable policy."
The official DFEE age participation index for under-21s shows the trend. The API, which is based on an averaged population figure for 18 and 19-year-olds only, is projected to be between 30 and 33 per cent in 1998-99, a drop from 34 per cent in 1997-98. Spokesmen say this is almost wholly explained by the rush to beat tuition fees.