A sharp decline in university applications in England in the first year of £9,000 tuition fees has been met with a lack of concern from sector leaders that exemplifies a major shift in the national dialogue about higher education, a vice-chancellor has said.
David Green, head of the University of Worcester, predicted that the downward trend would continue throughout 2012, with fewer students applying in clearing.
"Last year about 120,000 people applied after the deadline," he said. "I think we will see about half the number in 2012.
"I've been in higher education for almost 30 years and I can't remember a 10 per cent dip. I think this is the biggest fall in a single year since Ucas began 50 years ago."
He added that he had been struck by a lack of concern over the slump, which he said highlighted a "change in the national dialogue over higher education".
Professor Green's disquiet followed the publication of data by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showing that 42 higher education institutions experienced a double-digit drop in applications as part of an overall fall of 8.5 per cent to all institutions in England.
One of the sharpest dips was for the University for the Creative Arts, which had 2,622 fewer applications - a 29.7 per cent decrease. Applications to the University of Roehampton fell by .5 per cent, those to Aston University dropped 20.5 per cent and to Goldsmiths, University of London 22 per cent.
Arts, humanities and social science subjects were hardest hit, with vocational subjects and degrees that lead directly to well-paid professional careers faring better.
Applications to arts and social sciences dropped by 13.7 per cent, while there was an 11.2 per cent fall for European languages. Meanwhile, law and business courses saw drops of 5.2 per cent, and subjects related to science, technology and maths shrank by just 2.5 per cent.
In another notable trend, institutions offering business-related courses, including some leading private colleges, were among the biggest winners: applications doubled to BPP University College, ifs School of Finance and the University of Buckingham, albeit from a relatively small base.
Alistair Alcock, professor of marketing at Buckingham, said that the higher fees charged in mainstream universities made the private sector a less "frightening" proposition.
"If you have to contemplate larger loans, then the level the private sector is charging does not seem so frightening."
While some publicly funded universities suffered, others have prospered. Birkbeck, University of London - which specialises in courses taught in the evenings - saw a 156.1 per cent rise in applications.
David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, said: "Many students are looking for flexible degree programmes, which will enable them to work while they study, offsetting some of the costs of university and gaining valuable work experience for when they graduate."
Overall, the number of UK applicants dropped by 8.7 per cent - down from 506,388 to 462,507 - while English applicants fell by 9.9 per cent. However, this was offset by an extra 4,993 applicants from outside the European Union, a 13.7 per cent increase, although EU applicant levels fell by 11.2 per cent.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, insisted that the decline in applications did not necessarily mean a crisis for institutions, which would continue to be oversubscribed.
A spokesman for Roehampton, which had one of the sharpest dips in applications, said the institution was confident that it would hit its admissions targets by September, while offers made so far suggest that applicants next year would be "particularly strong".
The figures also show that school-leavers were least put off by higher fees, with the number of 18-year-old applicants falling just 2.6 per cent. In contrast, the cohort of applicants aged 19 and over fell by 11.8 per cent.
Students from poorer families were less affected by the changes than some had predicted, with the application rate from the most disadvantaged fifth of the population down by 0.2 per cent in England compared with a 2.5 per cent decline among the 20 per cent living in the "most advantaged" areas.
Neil Harrison, senior research fellow in education at the University of the West of England, said: "This pattern isn't really unexpected if one looks back at the history; the same thing happened in 2006 when tuition fees were tripled.
"There isn't clear evidence yet, but it is possible that more affluent families are able to provide or suggest alternatives to higher education for their young people...High-achieving young people from deprived backgrounds are likely to have very limited alternatives. This isn't to say that no young people from deprived backgrounds are put off by rising costs, but that the propensity seems to be much lower."
Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, added that wealthier students had traditionally taken gap years in larger numbers, but many had cancelled them in 2011 to avoid the introduction of higher fees. The year-on-year dip in the proportion of these students applying for 2012 entry reflects this, he suggested.
Ucas applications at a glance
• Total applicants to full-time undergraduate programmes number 540,073, down from 583,546 in 2011 and 570,556 in 2010, but higher than the 464,167 seen in 2009 (see graph below)
• Large declines in some arts, humanities and social sciences (non-European languages -21.5 per cent, creative arts and design -16.3 per cent) with sciences and some vocational disciplines holding up better (physical sciences -0.6 per cent, engineering -1.3 per cent, medicine and dentistry -3.1 per cent)
• Fears that poorer students would be hardest hit apparently unfounded, with applicants from "most advantaged" areas falling more than those from the least
• Mature students hit hard, with number of 18-year-old applicants down 2.6 per cent, compared with an 11.8 per cent decline in applicants over 19
• Big proportional rise in applications to private providers, albeit from a small base (BPP University College 132 per cent, ifs School of Finance 119 per cent, University of Buckingham 105 per cent)
• Some impact on cross-border flows of students within the UK, but not as dramatic as expected in light of different fee regimes (see below)
• Universities focusing in creative subjects suffer big drops, including the University for the Creative Arts (-29.7 per cent) and Goldsmiths (-22 per cent)
• Decline greater among Russell Group (-5.1 per cent) than 1994 Group institutions (-3.2 per cent). Million+ universities see 6.5 per cent decline, GuildHE institutions -7.7 per cent and University Alliance -8.8 per cent.
Flow between UK nations stemmed but not stopped by higher fees
The Ucas application figures for 2012 provide some evidence that domestic students have been deterred from leaving their home countries by higher fees in other parts of the UK, but the impact has not been as severe as some predicted.
With applicants in Scotland eligible for a free university education if they stay at home but obliged to pay up to £9,000 everywhere else in the UK, there were concerns that the number applying to universities in England could plummet.
In the event, English institutions have suffered a 16.4 per cent decline in Scottish applicants, a smaller drop than many expected.
At the same time, predictions that English students would be put off studying in Scotland by its four-year courses - resulting in degrees costing non-Scottish students up to £36,000 - also appear to have been overly pessimistic.
The number of English applicants to Scottish institutions fell by just 5.6 per cent, less than they did in England, while the total applicants in Scotland rose 0.2 per cent. A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said that the fall in applications from England was "quite a lot lower than people were anticipating".
In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, home students will pay £3,465 in fees in 2012, but as much as £9,000 if they study in England, Scotland or Wales.
This has contributed to falls of between 13 and 15 per cent in the number of Northern Irish applicants to universities in other parts of the UK.
There had also been worries that because home students would be deterred from leaving the region by higher fees elsewhere, there would be greater competition and tougher entrance requirements at home.
However, the number of Northern Irish applicants to universities in the region actually declined by 1.5 per cent.
English and Welsh students will pay up to £9,000 and £3,465 a year respectively wherever in the UK they study.
Welsh universities suffered a 4.5 per cent decline in applicants from Wales - despite their tuition fees being held steady - and a 12.3 per cent drop from English students.
Luke Young, president of the National Union of Students Wales, said universities had "a lot of work to do in convincing people of the benefits of studying in Wales".