The number of people who have applied to United Kingdom higher education undergraduate courses for 2017 is down 4% on last year. This includes a 4% drop in applications from the UK and a 5% drop in applications from the European Union. But applications from other countries have risen by 2%.
The figures have prompted speculation that the abolition of maintenance grants, inflation+3% interest rate rises on student loans, rising hostility to immigrants aired during the Brexit referendum campaign and uncertainty over how EU students will be affected by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union may have contributed to the downward trend.
One field showing a dramatic loss of demand is nursing. Overall, there are 53,010 applicants to nursing courses, representing a decrease of 19% compared to this point last year.
University leaders said the statistics show the continuation of some worrying trends, with a fall in the number of applications from mature students, from the European Union and a sharp decline in those applying to study nursing courses, particularly from older age cohorts.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said there are number of issues to address. “Continuing to communicate to European applicants that they are welcome and [that they] enrich our education system is important,” she said.
But the decline in mature student entrants must also be tackled.
“We recognise also the concern about the total cost of going to university. Any analysis needs to cover the cost of maintenance and the interest rate on the loans,” she said.
University Alliance Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell said: “While the small rise in the number of non-EU international students is welcome, this does not make up for the drop in applications from the EU. This reinforces the need for the most open arrangement possible as Britain leaves the EU so that those with the talent from overseas can continue to come here to study without facing barriers.”
The government has previously announced that EU students applying to start courses in autumn 2017 and in autumn 2018 will still be eligible for loans and grants, even if their courses are due to finish after the UK leaves the EU – which is due to be completed by March 2019.
Ansell added: “We need to make it as easy as possible for people to attend university later in life, to gain new skills or change careers, and the decline in lifelong learning has been a growing concern for some years now.”
She said the government’s pilot schemes must be matched by a coherent, ambitious strategy.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, said the application figures were “not good news”.
The EU market has been an area of consistent growth in recent years and the 5% fall in applications will create additional concerns, she said.
“There is no doubt that the government’s approach to Brexit is damaging and is creating huge uncertainties, both for EU students and UK universities.”
The number of applications to UK higher education courses for 2017 at the June deadline is 649,700, a fall of around 25,000 compared with last year.
There are now 529,620 UK applicants (a decrease of 4% compared to this point last year); 49,250 EU applicants (a decrease of 5%); and 70,830 applicants from other overseas countries (an increase of 2%).
There have been reductions in applicants from all countries of the UK: 437,860 from England (down 5% on 2016); 48,940 from Scotland (down 1%); 22,530 from Wales (down 5%); and 20,290 from Northern Ireland (down 4%).
The year-on-year changes in applicants show differences across age ranges. There are around 321,950 18-year-old applicants, an increase of 1,510 on last year.
In England, the proportion of the 18-year-old population who have applied to higher education, the ‘application rate’, has increased from 37.2% in 2016 to 37.9%, the highest level recorded. In Wales, the application rate has fallen from 32.9% to 32.5%. There were 315,200 applicants at the deadline aged 19 or older (a decrease of 27,180 on last year).
Across the UK, at ages of 19 and older there were some significant signs of falling application rates: at 19 the rate change was -5%, at 20-24 it was -7%, at 25-29 and 30-34 it was -14% and for 35 and over it was -15%. This suggests decreasing age diversity.
Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said the downward trend in mature student numbers is now “one of the most pressing issues in fair access to higher education”.
Reasons behind the falling numbers
Dame Julia Goodfellow said there are several possible reasons behind the drop in numbers. “Last year was a record high for applications and factors such as Brexit and changes to the way degrees in nursing, midwifery and some other allied health professions in England are funded, could also be having an impact.”
For instance, from 1 August new nursing, midwifery and other health students will no longer receive National Health Service or NHS bursaries and will have to access the same loan system as other students.
“There has also been a fall in the number of 18 and 19 year olds across the UK population since 2010,” Goodfellow added. “This group makes up over half of all UK applicants to universities. The rate of applications from this age group, however, is at record levels, highlighting continued demand for university courses.”
Tatlow said the figures showed a further decline in the number of mature students, “confirming yet again that the current fees and funding system are not working for those who want to study later in life”.
She said the abolition of bursaries has depressed rather than increased applications for nursing and there will be no additional nurses trained in spite of ministers’ assurances.
“The government should now guarantee that the tuition fee system will not be extended to paramedics and other NHS staff groups.”
Dr Mark Corver, UCAS director of analysis and research, said within the UK older applicants are down, but applicants from the key 18-year-old age group have increased again to 321,950, supported by a record application rate from young people in England of 37.9%.
“How these trends translate into students at university and colleges will become clear over the next six weeks as applicants get their results and secure their places, and new applicants apply direct to UCAS’s Clearing process.”
There are some unexplained variations in the UCAS statistics. The fall in applications from the EU (excluding the UK) is very unevenly distributed by age. The drop at age 18 is -2%, at 19 it is -5%, at 20-24 -7%, at 25-29 it jumps to -20%, but at 30-34 it falls to -2% and at 35 and over it jumps again to -26%.
By contrast, applications from non-EU students applying from other countries have risen across most but not all age groups: at 18 it is up 6%, 19 it is at +1%, it falls at age 20-24 (-4%), then rising at 25-29 (+4%) and at 30-34 (+3%), and falling again at 35 and over (-3%).
The figures have been released a week after the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that since the maintenance grants were abolished for students from disadvantaged families in favour of maintenance loans under the last Conservative government, the system is making poorer students more heavily indebted than their wealthier peers.
They also come against a backdrop of increasing political pressure to debate changes to or the dropping of tuition fees.
Fees in England will increase to £9,250 (US$11,960) this year, and student loans are subject to an increase in interest rates – rising from 4.6% to 6.1% from this autumn.
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