CEO Blog: chilly weather

03 Dec 2012

The publication of the latest set of university application statistics by UCAS triggered mixed reactions last week. Universities UK said that it was all too early and that applications were likely to pick up later in the admissions year. The Russell Group implied it was going to be alright in the end.  Ministers were silent.

In million+ we have taken a different view and have warned that, whilst it is early days, the weathervane may be turning for the worse. So what’s the evidence for this?
The answers can be found in the UCAS statistics themselves. Once the applications from those seeking to study at Oxbridge and for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science are extracted from the figures, the November statistics paint a much gloomier picture. Comparing November 2012 with November 2011 there was a 14.8% downturn for applicants domiciled in England and a 14.1% downturn overall including EU and International applicants.

Up until now, the story has been one of cautious optimism based on the experience of 2006/07. Six years ago when fees were increased to £3,000, demand fell initially but then recovered steadily from 2007/8, at least for full-time applicants, with record numbers of applications and enrolments in the following years.

For those whose strategies are based on a similar bounce-back scenario in 2013/14, the November statistics offer little comfort. On the contrary, first-time full-time applications to date are lower than any November in the last six years. Demographic change is playing a part – the UK population of 18 year olds has fallen by 1.7% compared to last year -but this cannot explain the scale of the decline. 

So what other factors could be at play?  What makes 2013 different from 2007? And most importantly, what should be done? The trebling of fees in England has to be part of the story but unlike in 2006, there has been no major improvement in the maintenance grants and loans on offer. This is particularly significant given the tough economic outlook: whilst downturns are normally associated with an upturn of interest in higher education, it is clear that part-time jobs for students may be less readily available and that many families may be less able to help out with rent and bills. The NUS has run a very creditable campaign pointing out that the maintenance system has not kept pace with the soaring cost of living. If we are now seeing the ‘lagged’ effects of the recession affect higher education participation then there is an even stronger case for the NUS’s arguments to have a better hearing.

There is another sharp difference between 2012 and 2006. This time there has been no concerted high profile, Government-backed campaign to promote the value of higher education and the diverse, technical and professionally focused courses on offer.  Many 2013/14 applicants were studying for GCSEs or other Level 2 qualifications when Parliament made its decision to raise fees and were not already set on an inevitable path to university. Since the majority of the overall fall in applications has been amongst English 18 year olds, the lack of any public campaign may be costly, particularly given disproportionate media focus on graduate unemployment. 

In the same week that the UCAS statistics were published, the Conservative think-tank, Policy Exchange, published a survey carried out by YouGov, and reported by the BBC, which confirmed that people thought that university did not have a practical focus. The highly vocational courses that some universities offer need to be presented to potential students as genuine options for their future career. The either/or scenario of apprenticeships or university is a false one. A high quality apprenticeship, itself, can provide the skills, inspiration and impetus for someone to go on to university.

It would be a travesty if the opportunities of higher education were to go under-promoted and under-described. If the fall in applications seen in the November statistics becomes a trend then there is a risk that the gains made in widening participation in recent years will be reversed. Universities are players in a market, not all of their making. They will seek to position themselves as they consider appropriate but there is every reason to recognise that the weather is getting chilly.

Instead there should be a common call for the Government to move from denial into action. Individuals, society and the economy as well as universities would all benefit from a comprehensive Government-backed and funded campaign to promote the value of higher education and the opportunities that a diverse range of courses offer. It is the students and graduates of the future on whom we will all rely to resolve the challenges of tomorrow. They should not be left out in the cold.