Lib Dem Voice

Understanding the university application figures

Ahead of the preliminary university application figures late last year, I posted five questions by which to judge them when they were published. The gist of all the questions was, “what do the figures really mean if you scratch beneath the surface?”. In particular, the big spike in applications in the last year before the new fee arrangements, coupled with the declining teenage population, means that crude headline number comparisons can be very misleading. As it turned out, the five questions were a pretty good guide to what the university application figures really meant.

Now that we have the full set of figures for normal applications (late applications will carry on for some time yet), it is worth returning to the same basic points.

Once you strip out the spike last year and factor in the population decline (the 18 year old population peaked in 2009), the figures show something rather remarkable:

The proportion of English school leavers applying for university places this year is higher than it ever was under Labour, and is the second highest on record (second only to last year’s pre-fees change spike).

It’s worth saying that again, as judging by the initial news reports just about all of the media have missed it:

The proportion of English school leavers applying for university places this year is higher than it ever was under Labour, and is the second highest on record (second only to last year’s pre-fees change spike).

What certainly has dropped is the number of applications from would-be mature students. That is an important (and almost wholly neglected) issue. Against that, on the up side, applications from people from the most deprived backgrounds have held up.

The ironic net effect is that with applications from the most deprived backgrounds holding up, if anything the changes overall have produced a small net improvement in social mobility, albeit via a slightly bizarre back door route. (Stephen Tall has highlighted the evidence from UCAS on this and put together this excellent graph.)

Moreover, what we don’t yet know is how much of the fall in would-be full time mature students is caused by them shifting to applying for part-time courses instead, as they are excluded from these figures. Given that the changes in fee arrangements includes providing tuition fee loans to part time students for the first time, it would be logical to expect some people to shift from full time to part time. It is likely too that the general economic situation is encouraging more people to think about part time rather than full time study to help sustain overall levels of household income. We will need more data to judge that later in the year.

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