Universities and colleges are bracing themselves for a fall in the number of applications for full-time higher education places in 1999.
The number of applications received by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service by the December 15 deadline was down by 2 to 3 per cent on last year's poor figures, when tuition fees and the phasing-out of grants had cut applications by 4.2 per cent at this stage.
By January 15 UCAS had processed 11 per cent fewer applications than in 1998, skewing institutional comparisons. Even so, some institutions are well down. In Scotland, for example, figures for Napier University show a 25 per cent drop and for Heriot-Watt a 21 per cent drop. Some of the old universities in the north of England are also expecting to be particularly hard hit.
"Applications for 1999 entry are down nationally and particularly so in the north," said Jacqueline Henshaw, head of undergraduate admissions at the University of Manchester. "The university will see a drop this year."
"At present we are down 12 per cent overall on where we were a year ago," said Ken Young, admissions officer at the University of Newcastle. "I hope it will look a bit better next week - there is often a late flood of applications - but we are still likely to be down."
At the University of Hull, applications have fallen. "There is a smaller number of applications in the system as a whole," said an admissions officer. "Universities in the North are down and it looks like the Northwest has been hit harder than the Northeast."
Applications are down at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. The universities of Liverpool, Sheffield and Salford refused to comment.
Some higher education colleges are reporting falls. In the North west, for example, applications to Liverpool Hope University College have dipped by more than 10 per cent and nearby Edge Hill College is down by 15 per cent on last year.
Ian Waghorn, assistant registrar at Ripon and York St John University College, said the gap between well-established universities and the rest of the sector seems to be widening significantly. "There may well be something in the view that now students are paying, they could be aiming higher. If that is the case, higher education colleges are going to feel the squeeze." Further education colleges have made the same point, although John Brennan of the Association of Colleges said that he was not aware of any valid basis for the claim.
Universities showing an increase in applications included Oxford and Cambridge. Among the higher education colleges, Chester Institute of Higher Education had an 18 per cent rise. In Scotland, the only university reporting an increase last week was the University of Abertay Dundee.
Most universities are blaming the possible drop in applications on the introduction of student fees and the phasing-out of grants. Some are reporting that more students are deferring entry to earn money to pay for their university years. The University of Exeter, for example, reported an 10.7 per cent increase in the number of applications for deferred places.
Dr Henshaw of the University of Manchester also said that the university is attracting an increasing number of applications from the local region. Under the new funding arrangements, parents could be exerting a greater influence over where their offspring study, limiting them to the local area, she suggested.
Additional research, J. Currie