Three ways to make sure you’re talking sense on student numbers, tuition fees and all that

Want to make sure your comments are grounded in solid evidence when talking about the impact of tuition fees on students numbers and the like in England? Prefer evidence that stands up to a little basic scrutiny over that which falls apart the moment you apply a critical rather than a closed partisan mind to it? Then there are three things to remember.

The number of teenagers is falling

With the number of teenagers dropping, simply talking about absolute numbers risks being very misleading. Just because the raw numbers are down, that doesn’t mean the proportion of teenagers doing something has fallen.

In fact, it’s quite possible for a higher proportion of teenagers to be doing something and for the raw totals to be down. (That is just what has happened with some of the figures over the last couple of years.) Simply reporting the latter without mentioning the former would be misleading. And you don’t want to be that, do you?

So keep an eye on the percentage of teenagers or school leavers and not just the raw totals.

Applications are not the same as acceptances

Data about application numbers come out ahead of offers and acceptances, which in turn comes out ahead of data about the number of people starting courses, let alone the number finishing. So it’s understandable that application data gets a lot of attention.

But it is only that. Applying to university isn’t what educates people, it’s going to university. Applying to university isn’t what opens people up to new ideas and experiences, it’s going to university. And applying to university isn’t what breaks down inequality, it’s going to university.

Applications data is interesting; university attendance data is what matter when it comes to the futures for individuals, society and our economy.

Don’t confuse application data with how many people are getting a university education.

Mature students are not the same as teenagers

Don’t assume that what the overall figures say is happening is true about teenagers. There are more than enough mature students to if to be possible for the overall figures to say one thing and for something different to be happening to teenagers.

Indeed, a very broad-brush description of what is happening to university applications is that applications from teenagers have held up but from mature students have fallen (remembering to factor in #1 above and, ahem, ignoring #2). It’s the latter which depresses the overall figures, yet the rhetoric about the overall figures is often applied as if it is true about teenagers when in fact it isn’t.

Yes, being accurate does matter

These aren’t just theoretical points. Taking #1 and #3 into account turned on its head what the figures released around the start of 2012 really showed – and of course #2 also means those figures were given more attention than they deserved.

There is actually a fourth, more general, point to bear in mind too: the new tuition fees system is rather complicated, most obviously evidenced by it not being a system of up front fees, yet the widespread prevalence of that very phrase in online comments about it. So it’s well worth taking some time to (try to!) understand how it really works. This film from Martin Lewis rather good on that.

UPDATE: For a good example of how important it is to remember the changing population levels, see Stephen Tall’s post.

2 responses to “Three ways to make sure you’re talking sense on student numbers, tuition fees and all that”

  1. Should we be worried about the fall in the number of mature students, given that the new regime created by Vince Cable is more helpful to mature students than Labour's?

    • Yes, we should be. Often mature students make a lot more of their studies, since they are experienced, better organised and know exactly what they want to do and why they want to do it. There are lots of students between 18-25 who are doing great, but I'd like more people not to see uni straight after school as a default option, and get some experience first while making up their mind what subject is really worth (for them personally) spending three years on. Mature students often represent a really good investment (in terms of time, personal effort and money). (edit: for themselves, I hasten to add – but for society, too).

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