By Ian McNay
‘Record numbers apply to enter higher education’ was the good news reported at the end of the first application period in January by most papers – I have not seen one to query this, but I have not checked them all. The March figures are now out, almost unreported, and confirm what was true in January: applications are up on last year, by just over 2 per cent. The increase for the UK is lower than that, at about 1.6 per cent.
That is good, but the claim of a record depends what you count and compare with. The secondary headline was that this record showed that high fee levels had had no impact, implying that the record applied where fees had been raised. Not true. If we go back to before the fees were mooted, to applicants for 2010 entry, over the six years since then applicants from England have gone down by 3 per cent; from Northern Ireland have gone up by 8 per cent; from Scotland have gone up by 14 per cent and in Wales are down only by about 0.5 per cent. So, UK applications are not at record levels, but still 6,000 below the figures for 2010 entry; for England, the figure is down 13,000. The record claim is true only by including EU and international applicants. For the latter group, entry has been difficult because of visa policies, so applications may increase but that is no guarantee of extra students at the end of the cycle.
The second feature to note is that applicants from England aged 18 have increased, though only marginally for men. That increase is more than outweighed by all other age groups which have declined. In Northern Ireland and Scotland they have gone up in all older age groups. The obvious conclusion is that high fees in England have had an effect, particularly on older potential applicants, so that the English government is frontloading higher education and has abandoned support to lifelong learning, again. Older students have to rely on themselves. That is true, too, for part-time students where the withdrawal of funding for second qualifications resulted in a drop in numbers, and the introduction of loans towards higher fees, for which many are not eligible, was followed by reduction in employer support, and reductions in numbers of older entrants to apprenticeships as the latest joint seminar on widening access and participation heard on April 13th.
The third thing to note is that, despite entry requirements being lowered, about half the 30,000 extra places allocated by the English government remained empty, which suggests that uncapping student numbers in England may have very little effect.
SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.