How do the university application figures match up against my five questions?

On Sunday, ahead of the publication of the first tranche of university application figures, I posed five questions for judging what they meant. Now the full figures are out, how to do they compare to those five tests?

Let’s see…

When comparing figures, how do they look when counted not in simple numbers but as a proportion of the 18 year old population?

The absolute number of applications is down compared to the previous year, but so too was the birth rate 18 years ago compared to the previous year, as Stuart pointed out in a comment on my earlier post:

The number of live births in England in 1993 (18 years ago) was 636,473; in the preceding year it had been 651,784. So that’s a fall of 15,311, or 2.3%. Looking at the fall in applications from 18 year olds, it’s 2.4%.

Not such an amazing drop after all; in fact, maybe just in line with demographic changes… and expect more to come, the number of births fell until 2001, when it reached less than 564,000.

In other words, anyone wanting to write the headline SHOCK NEWS AS TUITION FEES MAKE NO IMPACT – Small fall in applications mirrors decline in 18 year olds would have had rather more grounds for writing that than some of the shock horror headlines seen (and depending on your view of the importance of older applications, though it’s 18 year olds who have dominated the rhetoric up until now).

Are English and Scottish would be students behaving the same way? If they are, that suggests any changes are the result of wider economic or demographic factors, rather than the tuition fees policy – which is an English policy that the Scottish Government has not copied.

There is a small but only small difference between Scotland and England, suggesting that any impact of tuition fees there is must be small.

How do the figures compare not only to last year but years prior to that, bearing in mind that last year has a pre-fees bulge?

The number of applicants is lower than in 2011 or 2010 but higher than in 2008 or 2009. Moreover, as Tim Leunig pointed out:

The “expected figure” for those aged 18 would be the figure 2 years ago, less last year’s bulge (which would have gone to univ this year), as a % of the relevant population. It is harder to have a firm expected figure for mature students, but this formula – expressed in absolute terms – would be a reasonable starting point.

The “bulge” can only be estimated but it would only need to have been fairly modest for the figures to pass Tim’s test and not show a decline. In other words, the figures don’t show a gloomy picture compared to the past once you allow for last year’s bulge.

What is the social breakdown of the changes?

Official figures have not been released, but sources who have seen fuller data than the published set tell me it looks like the decline compared to previous years is coming from higher income households rather than lower income households. This is a point that will be picked over in more detail as fuller data is published.

Some courses, such as medicine, tend to have much earlier application deadlines than those for other courses. Are applications for those early closing courses dropping (which would indicate a problem) or is it that early applications for courses with later deadlines are dropping (which would indicate people taking more time to decide this year and so still an open question)?

There is a fall in headline application figures for courses with earlier deadlines (though see previous points as to why the headline figure can be misleading, particularly because of demographic changes). There is a greater fall in applications for those with later deadlines, suggesting that – so far – the bigger effect is people taking longer to decide.

The overall picture

Overall then, once you delve beneath the headline nominal figures and factor in demographic change the bulge in applications last year, the figures so far do not show evidence of the tuition fees changes having much of an impact. There isn’t much of an English/Scottish difference, there isn’t a change significantly different from demographic change and there isn’t a change much different from a return to normality after last year’s bulge. Put all the factors together as the story so far is, if anything, one of no change.

But – and it’s a very important but – these are early figures. As Universities UK said:

It’s too early to read into these figures at the very start of the applications process. Historically, the application figures at the end of October have proven to be unreliable indicators of the final numbers. It may also be that students are taking longer this year to consider their options.

Today’s figures include numbers applying for courses with 15 October deadlines [Oxbridge, dentistry, veterinary and medicine], which form a very small portion of overall applications. The rates of application for this deadline are in line with expectations, only down 0.8 per cent.

Most importantly, we must not risk presenting skewed readings of statistics and risk putting off potential students from applying.

Higher education will see major changes from 2012 and universities are still having to respond to proposals introduced in the recent government White Paper.

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