It is unfortunate that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service's processing of student applications for 1999 has been delayed by a move to larger premises. This is the first year in which no maintenance grants will be available and the second in which tuition fees will be charged. It is the first real test of these policies' impact.
Without the full national figures it is not possible to check whether the trends reported locally are worrying or not. Fewer applications (if there are fewer) may not mean fewer applicants. Students may be applying to fewer places. They may want to stay nearer home. They may be pickier. They may be taking a year out to work so they can pay their way. While this will be uncomfortable, it should not cause national panic.
But if the new policies appear to be differentially deterring those the government is rightly eager to attract - underqualified older people and students from poorer backgrounds - the fee and grant policy will need to be reviewed. This will be painful. But the easy alternative, of which Robert Zemsky (page 3) warns, of raiding research money, would be damaging.Research has been starved of funds, its infrastructure is yet to be repaired and the research community's renewed confidence is fragile. Policies for access and for research must be kept separate.