The University College and Admissions Service (UCAS) last week revealed the total number of applicants to universities in the UK has dropped by 12.9% this year. The figures seem to suggest that increases in tuition fees have caused a sharp decline in university applicants.
Although the admissions service’s chief executive Mary Curnock Cook warned “it is much too early to expect any effects from changes in tuition fees,” many have voiced their concern that these figures reflect the recent hike in university costs. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) said “putting financial barriers in front of young people is a policy of penalising ambition.”
A spokesperson for the University of St Andrews advised “great caution” when analysing the statistics, adding “these figures are mid-cycle and as such can only be indicative and do not give a full or final picture of application trends.”
The release of the figures coincides with the Scottish government’s rubberstamping of the decision to increase fees for students from the rest of the UK. Tuition fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland (RUK) at St Andrews will be increased to as much £9,000 a year in 2012.
English applicants to Scottish universities have dropped by 7.6% and Scottish applicants have fallen by 16.2%.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland described the figures as “very worrying” and blamed “the irresponsible actions of Scottish Institutions.” However, despite the overall drop in the number of applicants, St Andrews enjoyed a 17.5% increase in non-Scottish UK applicants and had similar success with the number of Scottish applicants as figures rose by 12%.
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts suggested that the increase in fees should not dissuade students from applying to university. “Most new students will not pay upfront, there will be more financial support for those from poorer families and everyone will make lower loan repayments than they do now once they are in well-paid jobs,” said Willets.
The publication of the figures prompted the National Union of Students (NUS) to call on the government to rethink its plans. The organisation’s president Liam Burns described the changes as “shambolic reforms,” urging the government to reconsider “before temporary chaos turns into permanent damage to our education system.”
Martin Lewis, head of the Independent Task Force on Student Finance Information painted an even bleaker picture, suggesting “we are close to a crisis point for university applications.”