APPLICATIONS to universities for 1998 are down 16 per cent compared to this time last year. This will be the first year in which fees will be charged and maintenance grants will start to be phased out.
The figures, calculated this week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions System from early applications, have nosedived compared with the same date last year. Students have another eight weeks to get their application forms in and the picture could change but the dramatic slide was being viewed with alarm this week.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, said that if the trend continued there would be 80,000 fewer applicants for 1998. "This is really quite extraordinary," he said. "The figures have remained stable for the past four years."
This week education and employment secretary David Blunkett reiterated at a seminar that 30 per cent of university students would not pay fees. "The government is deeply committed to increasing and widening access to higher education," he said.
By Tuesday UCAS had received 35,500 applications compared with 42,400 for the same time last year. Many are aiming for Oxbridge as its deadline was Wednesday. Other early applicants tend to be concentrated in popular subjects such as medicine and veterinary science.
Mr Higgins identified two factors which could be behind the downturn. "Some students are undoubtedly getting under the wire this year rather than waiting until 1998 and others may be deciding not to apply because they don't want to pay fees."
The downturn contrasts sharply with the end of the demographic fall in 18 to 21-year-olds. Numbers began to rise last year.
This term universities are way over their target figures, having admitted 23,000 more students than expected. This will cost them dearly since financial penalties will come into force at any institution admitting more than 2 per cent over target.
Exeter University has taken 240 students more than anticipated and a spokesman said the main factor was tuition fees. "We normally calculate our offers based on more than 100 deferrals but this year deferrals were down to single figures," he said.
Lancaster University is about 200 students over target and has compensated them all with Pounds 500 for not housing them on campus. University secretary Stephen Lamley said the system as a whole was overstretched and called for a more flexible approach from the Higher Education Funding Council for England over recruitment penalties.
He said the system would be fairer if penalties were averaged out over a number of years. "HEFCE assumes a degree of control which in practice can be destabilised very easily," Mr Lamley said.
Such a softening of the rules would be supported by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, a spokeswoman said this week. But HEFCE warned against any expectation of leniency, stressing that universities were aware of the rules that would still apply this year.
Frank Griffiths, pro vice chancellor at Leeds Metropolitan University, said he was astonished by the slack approach of those universities that failed to recruit within their target. He said there were two camps, those who took a firm line over recruitment and those who merely opened their doors and hoped for the best.
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