Top-up fees are no discouragement, but applicants are slow to take up offers, write Anthea Lipsett and Jessica Shepherd
The number of students accepting university places is down by less than 1 per cent on this time last year, The Times Higher can reveal.
The figures provide the first sign that the new top-up fee regime that comes into effect from September is not deterring potential students from pursuing applications to university.
In March, official figures showed that numbers of applications from would-be students were down by just under 4 per cent compared with the previous year.
Acceptances were showing a more serious decline until the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service launched a £5,000 campaign to remind candidates of their deadlines.
Senior sources have now said that acceptances have fallen by between only 0.6 per cent and 0.7 per cent compared with 2005.
A spokesman said: "This is the first year we have sent text messages to students to remind them to accept their offers by the May 5 deadline. The acceptances are negligibly down despite that."
Ucas also had posters made for universities and placed a prominent notice on its website to remind applicants.
Ucas said several reasons could lie behind applicants making their decisions later, possibly because some institutions sent out offers later, or students were hanging on to see what financial incentives institutions offered at the last minute.
"We are talking about a generation that knows they can do things with the click of a button. They are going right to the wire with it now," the spokesman said.
The national figures, however, mask a mixed picture for different universities, a survey by The Times Higher shows.
Edinburgh University's acceptances are down by 5.3 per cent. "This is the result of a reduction in the number of offers made to ensure that our total population of students is within the limit set by the Scottish Funding Council in the light of improved progression rates," a spokesperson said.
Other universities that have seen a drop in the number of acceptances are Leicester and Derby, both of which say fees could be partly to blame.
The number of acceptances for Leicester are down by 2.5 per cent. Richard Taylor, the university's director of marketing, said: "It's been a difficult year in the East Midlands, but Leicester is holding up particularly well.
"The East Midlands recruits over two thirds of its students from outside the region - the highest proportion of any UK region," he said.
"It would be foolish to say it's nothing to do with fees. It could be that people are staying closer to home, which would affect the East Midlands more than others. No one has done the analysis, but it seems logical."
The number of acceptances at Derby University are also down. "We fear it is the more mature learner who may have been discouraged by the new fees regime," a spokesman said. "The university traditionally receives late applications - well into September - so we shall need to put more effort into this activity. We hope to win back over half the shortfall by the time courses commence."
Acceptances are down 3.5 per cent at Heriot-Watt University because of an exceptionally high number of acceptances in one school last year. "If you discount this effect, we are pretty much exactly where we were this time last year," a spokesperson said.
Durham University, meanwhile, has seen acceptances fall by 0.6 per cent.
But competition for undergraduate entry at Durham is keen, with up to 19 applicants per place in some subjects, and entry standards remain high.
The number of applications to Nottingham University has fallen by 14 per cent on 2005 but acceptances are up by 14 per cent for undergraduates. A spokesperson said: "We are still the sixth most popular university in the country with eight people applying for each place."
The drop in applications had more to do with the perceived difficulty of getting into Nottingham than the city's reputation for gun crime, the spokesperson said.
Southampton Solent's acceptances have risen by 15 per cent. A spokesperson put this down to efficient administration and students responding quickly.
- Leeds 6.5%
- Edinburgh 5.3%
- Heriot-Watt 3.5%
- Huddersfield 1.8%
- St Andrews 1%
- Durham 0.6%
- Westminster down
- Derby down
- City 22.8%
- Southampton Solent 15%
- Sunderland 14%
- Nottingham 14%
- Bristol 11%
- University of Wales, Bangor 10%
- School of Pharmacy 9.9%
- Bournemouth 9.3%
- King's 8%
- Coventry 6.7%
- Kingston 5.3%
- London School of Economics 5%
- Kent 4.9%
- York 4%
- Anglia Ruskin 3%
- Teesside 2.5%
- Lincoln 1.4%
- Northumbria 0.6%
- Stirling 0.5%
- Manchester 0.4%
- Birmingham 0.3%
- Essex 0.1%
- Dundee no change
- UCL expect no change
- Cambridge no change