Student applications drop just the tip of the iceberg

The number of home student applicants to UK universities has fallen significantly this year, with mature student applications the worst hit. Some university figures are playing down the impact, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg after a decade of changes to university funding.

At the beginning of this month the UK’s body for university applications, UCAS, released figures stating that applications for this year are down on average by 8.7%. This may have a great deal to do with the soaring increase in tuition fees in England.

Almost every discipline faces a decrease in applications, with the biggest casualties being in non-European languages and ‘technologies’, both of which were down by almost a fifth.

The only subjects to increase slightly were those ‘aligned to medicine’, that is nursing, midwifery and physiotherapy. However, increased interest in these specific professions is probably more to do with the fact that they are government-funded and no tuition fees need to be paid, rather than a sudden philanthropic urge from the current stock of English 18-year-olds.

Mature students

More interesting, however, is the news that the biggest drop in applications has been among mature students, with a total drop of almost 11% from students over 25. One reason is that mature students have been most affected by the fee changes. From autumn 2012 they will no longer be eligible for student loans if they are studying for a second degree.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, told the Guardian: “It is a deeply worrying sign that people looking to get education and training to further their ambitions are avoiding university and the debt that comes with it.”

Mature students make up a third of the student population and contribute greatly to student life. In the British environment where you have to practically make up your mind about your future career at the tender age of 18, it seems very short-sighted of the government to limit further degrees for those who may wish to change their minds.

And in crude financial terms, why would one want to alienate a possible third of universities’ ‘customers’?

On an international scale, Britain is lagging behind other countries on the issue of mature students and qualifications levels. A statement by Universities UK, the body that represents universities, showed that Canada, the US, New Zealand and Russia all had a much higher proportion of 25- to 64-year-olds with a higher education qualification than the UK.

Haphazard approach

Professor Michael Farthing, group chairman of the 1994 Group, which represents the 19 top UK universities, said of the application decrease: “The uncertainty caused by the government’s haphazard approach to reform has not helped.”

The decrease in applications to universities comes at the end of a very negative year for English higher education policy; one for which ‘haphazard approach’ would be a suitable description.

The 2009 Browne Report first proposed the lifting of the tuition fee cap, and after a change of government to a Conservative-Liberal coalition the madness continued with the white paper of July 2011, which proposed making it easier for private universities to open.

The government, led by David Cameron, then stumbled through the next few months with improvised strategies.

The tuition fee cap had been lifted, yet ministers urged universities not to charge the full £9,000 (US$14,140) upper fee limit, promising students that this would only occur under "exceptional circumstances". Unfortunately for the government, and for thousands of students, more than half of the institutions in England have decided to charge the full amount in autumn 2012.

Institutions were then allowed the chance to bid for 20,000 extra full-time undergraduate places if they slashed tuition fees. ‘No frills’ degrees were introduced, where full-time students would pay half a year's fees, but have limited access to facilities.

Perhaps akin to ‘no frills’ airlines these students will have to ‘upgrade’ if they want to use the internet or buy a book. Last year also told us that the highest student debt was the eye-watering figure of £66,150 (US$104,000). And this is without the fee rise.

Moments of madness

These moments of madness in 2011 may go some way towards explaining why so many students have decided to shun university education this autumn. From a student perspective, the current system in England seems to be a big mess.

Tuition fees have rocketed from nothing to £9,000 in the past decade. With the government changing its mind every few months, students constantly being overloaded with information and percentages and figures of fees flying around, the process is bewildering.

The current fall in applications will reverse the target set by the previous British government of having 50% of 18- to 30-year-olds at university. As part of that generation myself, we are now graduating with the bleak prospect that unemployment stands at a 15-year high and that anyone and everyone has a degree.

Perhaps this has contributed to the application fall as students feel that they may be better off attempting to get a job straight away with fewer qualifications, because three years and almost £30,000 of debt down the line they may be in no better position.

Experts have optimistically stated that the drop in student applicants is not as bad as they were expecting. Trying to put a positive spin on things Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We saw a similar dip in 2006 when tuition fees increased to £3,000, which then rectified in subsequent years.”

Although this may be true, personally I think that the decrease in applications this year is only the tip of the iceberg in what will prove to be a tumultuous few years for policy-makers and students alike.

* Hannah Blackstock is a student journalist studying German and history at Nottingham University. She is currently in Germany for an Erasmus year abroad.