Today, UCAS released its November figures which offer a snapshot at where application levels are in this current cycle. They are down from last year which has caused many to claim that higher fees are putting off potential students. Despite coming from all sections of the mainstream media, as well as social media, there is absolutely no evidence for this assertion. In fact at its worst, it amounts to either lazy reporting or sometimes even opportunistic scaremongering.
The fact is that today’s reported drop is a comparison to last year’s figures which were inflated thanks to many applicants deferring gap years in expectation of the future fee hike. This time last year, it was up 11.7% and today it is down 12.9%. So far, this is more of a re-adjustment and cancellation out of last year’s anomalies.
Another score against the claim that students are being deterred by fees is that applications in Scotland have fallen by 16% where students will not be charged fees.
All reports from universities across the UK is that their open days have had blockbuster attendance and demand – more than in any other year in memory. Many are having to lay on additional days to meet this demand. It is therefore more likely that students, faced with paying significantly more money over their lifetimes for higher education, are taking longer about making their decision which now carries additional stakes. The UCAS Chief Executive said at conference this afternoon that they are preparing for a late surge in applications which they expect to hit right up against the final deadline. I hope she is right.
Longer term, the decline in the younger population will see an impact on how many apply to university, but we’ll need more than just the snapshot mid-cycle UCAS figures to seriously analyse this question.
In the mean-time, it would better serve potential applicants who still haven’t made up their minds, to remain calm. Today’s data can not offer us any serious conclusions about why people are/are not applying for university. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise.
Update – Friday 6th January
The debate over UCAS figures has been raging once again this week thanks to the release by UCAS of the latest statistics. As after previous releases, most of the mainstream media has linked a supposed fall in applications to students being deterred by fees. One Telegraph article had the misleading headline ‘University applications in freefall after fees increase’ – which seemed at best to be a cynical way to drive internet traffic as the article this linked to didn’t even end up making the point so strongly. But by then the damage is done, and they know it.
There’s an excellent blog over at Ed in order which follows on nicely from my original post above and brings things up to date. Check it out here.
There’s also something else rather odd going on. Chris Cook of the FT was possibly the only mainstream education journalist to write an article this week that went against the Fleet Street groupthink mantra of ‘higher fees are putting off students’. Read it here. Guido Fawkes has clumsily weighed into the discussion today in the most remarkable way, claiming that because Cook has gone against the grain on UCAS stats, this is evidence that he is spinning for the Government. The fact is that Chris Cook seems to be one of the few education correspondents that actually knows how to correctly read and interpret UCAS statistical releases and doesn’t seem interested in subscribing to lazy received wisdoms. Guido Fawkes uses Cook’s well-documented history working for David Willetts and the Conservatives to question his independence on this issue.
This is deeply ironic because Cook is in fact one of the very few mainstream journalists showing genuine independence of thought over this debate by interpreting the UCAS data himself and drawing different conclusions to the rest of the journalist establishment. There is a further irony in that after having penned multiple critiques of Coalition education policy and Michael Gove in particular, Cook has been systematically shunned by much of the Conservative establishment so is far from likely to be actively spinning for them. Perhaps Guido Fawkes’ ludicrous and anti-intellectual attack this morning is part of this ongoing effort to discredit Chris Cook? It seems odder given that this particular smear doesn’t help the Government – though Fawkes is no stranger to indiscriminate attacks and character assassinations. Thankfully, those that actually work in HE know better and will continue to buy the FT for its excellent education coverage.
We’ll look again at all these issues after the final UCAS numbers for this year’s application cycle are released.