The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

Lies, damned lies and spin; never mind the statistics

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By Ian McNay

Press reports, 31 January, on UCAS statistics on the 15 January deadline showed remarkable unanimity around telling, shall we say…not the whole truth:

–         Girls lead the way as degree applications hit record levels – Times

–         Record numbers of 18-year-olds apply to university – Telegraph

–         University applications hit record high – Guardian

The Telegraph had a second story claiming the number of applicants aged 20 and over had increased by 5%.

All this gave comfort to [English] ministers who claim that high fees have had no long term effect on applications. So, let us look at the longer term and compare the cycle for 2014 entry, now that the fees regime is established and settled in, with the cycle for 2010, the last before the turbulence. That also avoids the myth, again repeated by Richard Adams and Libby Page in the Guardian, that ‘students rushed to beat the fee rise’ for 2011 entry. The UCAS end of cycle report records a drop in new applicants of 4% for that year. I have corrected the Guardian before on this; it is just sloppy reporting of a falsehood that is now a lazily accepted ‘truth’.

The lazy reporters, looking for the headline do not get beyond page 1 of the set of statistics. OK, there are a lot,  but the search for truth is not over in two minutes. One truth – Table D2 shows a rise in total applicants in the five year period from 570,510 to 580,000, but… Table D12 accounts for all that increase of 9,500 and a smidgeon more, because within that total re-applicants went up by 10,110.

So, new applicant numbers were nearly flat [with turbulence in the intervening years]. Well, yes, but not across all categories. EU applicants were 8% higher [but see a gloss below], and international applicants were up by 39% – 33,850 to 47,020.

If we look at the new applicants from the four home countries, Scotland and N. Ireland show miniscule increases – up 80 and 200 respectively; Wales shows a slightly larger decrease of 320, but still less than 2%. New applicants from England are down by 7,480, or nearly 5%, the only home country with such a continuing deficit and the only one to introduce universal high fees.

How about 18-year-olds? Again, if we include applicants from all domiciles, the numbers are up, by nearly 3% [Table D2.3]. If reporters turn the page, though, they will find the UK figures, which though up this year, are still 1.5% below the 2010 cycle [Table D7]. The reduction is true for all four countries but with women less affected, even showing a small increase in England. The impact of demographic and other factors needs to be factored in, of course. During the last downturn in 18-year-olds, early eighties to mid-nineties, numbers climbed steadily and at times spectacularly. The size of that cohort peaked more recently in 2008 for England and Wales, a year later in Scotland and four years earlier in N. Ireland. Since then it has declined at an annual rate of between 1 and 1.5%. Up to 2010 the applicant and entry rate – the percentage of the cohort –rose, so that growth in admissions outran growth in the main target market. That seems now to have resumed, but from a reduced base. England has ‘lost’ up to 16,000 students during the turbulence.

What the age related figures also show is that for UK applicants, the numbers are also lower than five years ago for all ages from 20 upwards, and down for non-UK applicants for all age groups after 21-24, where they are roughly equal. Most of these groups are now bigger as birth-rate increases move through the age ranges. However, if we disaggregate to the four home nations, the dominance of England in skewing the UK figure becomes apparent. England has reductions in all age groups, but in the other three countries, the trend in older applicants – 19 and above – is upwards, in two of them in four age groups – not the 35 and overs – and in N. Ireland in all five. In the main, the increases are marginal, but in Scotland – no fees, remember – the figures are up by 6%. This suggests that lifelong learning may still be on offer, but outside the costly purview of Westminster and Whitehall.

The exceptionality of high fees England has one other manifestation. EU applicants to English HEIs have increased; after an initial big drop when high fees came, in the numbers are now [Table D.7] up by 3.8%; in no fees Scotland they are over 28% higher. That may, of course, please many members of one of the governing parties in England.

Remember that these figures are for applicants. Numbers of full-time undergraduate entrants in 2013 rose despite the smaller 18+ cohort and despite a smaller proportion of that cohort passing A levels and a smaller proportion of those passing doing so with good grades. There is an increase in entrants with BTEC and other vocational qualifications, but, even so, there is little doubt that mean entry standards fell across the English system. With changes in exams in England leading to further reductions in the qualification rates at 16 and 18, the uncapping of student number restrictions may not lead to a surge of entrants. But…after 2020, the 18+ cohort expands again, more rapidly than it is currently shrinking, at over 2% per year for at least 10 years. Maintaining the participation rate – which can be done with static numbers of entrants from a shrinking base – will be more challenging, and expensive then.

Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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