Can we stop worrying about university application rates?

Four years after mass protests, dreams of going to uni are dropping. Tim Ireland/PA Archive/Press Association Images

It was clear that recent fundamental changes to the way we pay for university in England would have longstanding ramifications for young people’s plans for their future. Two years into the new fee regime, the early signs are already worrying.

In 2010, the newly elected coalition government announced its intention to raise the cap on tuition fees, and to pass responsibility for funding university study directly onto students, rather than on funding raised through general taxation.

Annual fees were introduced of up to £9,000 for full-time undergraduate study in 2012 and the average fee for university study in 2013-14 was £8,507. There has been close scrutiny of how these tuition fees would affect applications to higher education, particularly on the recruitment of students from lower socio-economic groups and mature students who may wish to study part-time.

Application rates up

One way of exploring the impact of fee rises on applications is to examine data produced by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS). According to the most recent UCAS report data for the January 2014 admission deadline provides the first reliable measure of young demand in higher education for 2014-2015 entry.

At first glance, the figures are encouraging. The UCAS statistics show that university application rates for 18 and 19-year-olds in England are continuing to rise, notwithstanding the rise in fees. There was a 1.4% increase in application rates for 18 year-olds in England for 2014. Demand from 19-year-olds who are first time applicants has also increased.

And while there are continuing regional differences, in no area of England have application rates dropped. Application rates among “disadvantaged” students are continuing to rise, as they have throughout the past decade.

In England, young people from disadvantaged areas are 94% more likely to apply than they were ten years ago and the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged areas appears to be narrowing.

On the face of it, this looks like good news. It lends support to the argument that the new fees regime is not putting a brake on applications and is not negatively impacting on efforts to broaden the social base of higher education.

This may seem particularly remarkable given other changes to the funding environment for students. These include the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for young people and the withdrawal of government funding to Aimhigher partnerships to widen student participation. There have also been extensive cuts to careers advice services.

A number of points are worth noting, however. While the upward trend continues for the present, UCAS concedes that application rates by young people are not as strong as they might have been had the new funding regime not been introduced. The introduction of fees was accompanied by a 3.3% reduction in applications during 2012, which has not been recouped. As UCAS states:

This pattern is consistent with the model that the introduction of higher and more variable tuition fees in 2012 reduced the level of 18-year-old demand for higher education, but did not materially alter the pattern of annual increases in that demand […] This model would suggest that the application rate is around 2.5 percentage points lower than it would have been if there had not been a decrease in the application rate in 2012.

In focusing primarily on 18 and 19-year-old students, who apply to university from school or college, the optimistic headline of the UCAS statistics masks some worrying trends.

Their data only take into account applications made by January 2014 for full-time study, leaving gaps in what we know about other applicants. “Late” applicants who apply after this date are missing, and they are more likely to be mature students and students who follow vocational routes into higher education. Figures for applicants for part-time study are also missing.

Data from the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) paint a much more worrying picture in relation to application rates for mature and part-time students. OFFA suggests a drop of around 40% in applications for part-time study since 2010-2011, a trend which seems to be reflected in more recent data.

This might seem surprising in view of the fact that one of the decisions made by government, aimed to be of benefit to mature students combining work with study, was to extend the provision of student loans to part-time students.

But eligibility for such loans is limited to those who do not already have an equivalent qualification, therefore ruling out those mature unemployed adults who are already qualified to degree level but are looking to retrain. It also fails to take account of the likelihood that mature adults with family commitments may be averse to accruing debt later in life.

Intentions to progress

The positive position on young people applying to university, reflected in UCAS data cited above, also contrasts with research by Aimhigher West Midlands, conducted with 11,756 learners between 2008 and 2014, which provides a longer-term view of the intentions of young people.

This work suggests that youth higher education participation rates may fall considerably. The Aimhigher study found that learners’ stated intentions to enter higher education have decreased 6.1 percentage points since the Browne review into higher education funding was announced. In the current academic year of 2013-14 they have fallen by 13%, to their lowest level.

The graph below summarises learners’ intentions to enter higher education over a six-year period between 2008 to 2014. This spans the publication and implementation of changes to student funding arising from the Browne Review, the withdrawal of the EMA and the closure of the national Aimhigher programme and severe cuts to the Connexions job advice programme.

The learners were predominantly from disadvantaged schools and academies located within Birmingham and Solihull, where the regional Aimhigher partnership has continued to work with four higher education providers and local schools, despite the end of its national funding in 2011.

Proportion of learners that are definitely/probably considering entering Higher Education before they are 30 years. Aimhigher West Midlands, January 2014

The data show that learner’s intentions to enter university were much higher before the Browne review was published. In 2013, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) reported that between 2006-7 and 2010-11, youth participation rates per cohort increased on average by one percentage point per annum.

In 2011-2013 this fell to half a percentage point increase. This closely matches the trends in the Aimhigher data. Worryingly, the Aimhigher data also show that in 2013-14 learners’ intentions to go on to higher education fell to their lowest level and are 10.6% below the pre-Browne baseline (85.8%) and 13.3% below 2010-11 highs.

If this drop in stated intentions to apply for higher education continues and is reflected in applicant behaviour at 18 or 19, these figures imply that we may soon see a drop in young people going to university. This may be even more pronounced in areas where Aimhigher and other outreach work has not been sustained to the same extent as it has in places like Birmingham and Solihull.

Continuing challenges

It is not just in relation to tuition fees and their impact on applications that we need to be concerned about widening the social base of higher education. Despite claims that the UK is coming out of recession, public finances continue to be subject to government austerity measures, and this means further wide ranging cuts to education spending.

Universities are still waiting for their annual grant letter from HEFCE, which has had its government funding cut back. It is still unclear how much will be cut from the Student Opportunity Fund – the funding that higher education institutions receive to widen participation from marginalised groups.

And remember, getting into higher education is only part of the story of widening participation. Moving on from higher education into work does not mean a lifetime earnings advantage of £100,000 for all, compared with those who leave education with level 3 qualifications such as A levels.

The work of the Future Track project by Kate Purcell and colleagues at Warwick University is illuminating here. They found that the earnings advantage associated with a degree may have been declining slowly over the past decade.

Not all graduate jobs are valued in the same way. While students who studied traditional subjects such as law or medicine have experienced less of a decline in employment opportunities and earnings, graduates from arts subjects, and from universities categorised as “low tariff access institutions”, have suffered a much greater decline. This is likely to disproportionately affect some students. Purcell’s team says:

The labour market allocates opportunities not just on the basis of factors such as course results and subjects studied but also according to the category of university attended, the age of the graduate, ethnic background and parental education. These factors appear to be instrumental in decreasing or increasing the likelihood that graduates will experience unemployment, or enter a graduate job and are associated with entry into further study.

So while the latest UCAS application statistics suggest cause for optimism about the impact of financial changes on intentions to study in higher education, we need to continuously monitor these changes.

We must also find ways to capture the decision-making of those who are less likely to be recorded in data that focuses on young, direct entrants to higher education, such as part-time and mature entrants. Unfortunately, these potential students continue to be sidelined as a policy concern.

This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new Education section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.

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