The good news on university applications in 5 graphs

While the attention of the world’s media was focused on an 8lb 6oz bundle of Royal joy, there was perhaps even more significant good news about young people that didn’t garner quite so much coverage: demand for higher education from young people is at or near record levels for each country of the UK in 2013. This was announced by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) yesterday, an analysis of patterns of demand from over 20 million applications for higher education from 2004 to 2013 — if ever there were a day to bury good news…

Here are five graphs which tell the story…

Demand for higher education from young people is at or near record levels for each country of the UK in 2013.

ucas figures - application figs 2013

Application rates for English 18 year olds have increased by one percentage point to 35 per cent in 2013. This increase is typical of the trend between 2006 and 2011 and takes the application rate back to the 2011 level, after its decrease in 2012. Application rates for 18 year olds in Northern Ireland have increased to 48 per cent, application rates in Scotland (32 per cent) and Wales (30 per cent) are similar to the 2012 cycle.

Application rates for young, disadvantaged groups have increased to new highs in England.

The March deadline data confirms that 18 year old application rates of people from disadvantaged groups in England increased in 2013 to reach their highest recorded values. This is the case whether disadvantage is defined by area-based measures of higher education entry or by individual-level measures of low income. These increases in 2013 continue a pattern of substantial increases (over 70 per cent proportionally) over the past 10 cycles that is reducing the differences in application rates between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. In 2004 demand from 18 year olds in advantaged areas was 4.3 times greater than in disadvantaged areas. This has fallen to 2.7 times in 2013.

There are two ways of measuring economic disadvantage. Here’s one graph using the POLAR classification which divides small areas across the UK into five groups according to their level of young participation (entry into higher education at age 18 or 19) in higher education, a direct measure of advantage and disadvantage in terms of access to higher education.

ucas figures - application figs by disadv 2013

In 2013, 18 year olds living in the most advantaged areas are 2.7 times more likely to apply for higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged areas. This is substantially less of a differential than in 2004, when 18 year olds living in the most advantaged areas were 4.3 times more likely to apply for higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged areas. This reduction is a result of the relatively larger growth in demand from disadvantaged areas over this period.

The problem with the POLAR measurement is that areas change over time, with some previously low-income areas becoming gentrified or vice versa; yet changing the classification to reflect this doesn’t then allow for direct comparison over time.

An alternative way to try and measure disadvantage is to look at how many pupils who receive for free school meals (broadly speaking those from households with less than than £16,000 annual income) apply to university. UCAS has matched data from the Department for Education’s National Pupil Database to the UCAS applications data to find out the application rates from young people in receipt of free school meals when they were aged 15:

ucas figures - application figs by FSM 2013

The application rate for 18 year olds in 2013 who were previously in receipt of free school meals is 15 per cent compared with 33 per cent for those not in receipt of free school meals. Pupils who had not been receipt of free school meals were more than twice as likely to apply to higher education in 2013 than those who had been in receipt of free school meals. In 2012, when the higher and more variable fees were introduced, the application rate of those not in receipt of free school meals fell by 1.5 percentage points (4.7 per cent proportionally). In comparison, the application rate of those in receipt of free school meals fell by 0.1 percentage points (0.8 per cent proportionally). In 2013, the application rates increase for both groups by around 3.5 per cent proportionally (and the application rate for those in receipt of free school meals reached a new recorded high). This is an increase typical of the period for those not in receipt of free school meals but lower than the annual increases typical before 2012 for those in receipt of free school meals.

There has been a large (70%) proportional increase in the application rate from pupils in the Black ethnic group since 2006.

ucas figures - application figs by ethnicity 2013

Across the period the Chinese ethnic group have consistently higher application rates, more than 50 per cent on this measure, compared with the other groups. The Asian ethnic group have an application rate of around 40 per cent on this measure in 2013. The Black, Mixed, White and Other ethnic groups have application rates in a relatively narrow range in 2013 between 29 per cent (White) and 34 per cent (Black). The largest increase in application rates across the period, and the largest increase in 2013, is observed for the Black ethnic group, for these pupils the application rate has increased from 20 per cent in 2006 to 34 per cent in 2013 (a 70 per cent proportional increase).

Whilst relative demand is highest from pupils in London and lowest in the North East, patterns are changing over time with demand growing fastest amongst pupils in the North West.

ucas figures - application figs by region 2013

In all regions the application rate has increased since 2004 and, in general, each region reflects the national trend of increases or decreases. For instance the application rate in all regions falls in 2012 and increases in 2013. The highest application rate in each year in the period is from London (42 per cent in 2013), and the lowest application rate each year is from the North East (31 per cent in 2013). The greatest proportional increase in the application rate over the period is from the North West region (38 per cent proportional increase: from 26 per cent in 2004 to 35 per cent 2013) and the smallest proportional increase is from the South West region (14 per cent proportional increase: from 28 per cent in 2004 to 31 per cent in 2013).

My 3 conclusions from these 5 graphs…

1. The introduction of variable tuition fees in 2012 triggered a small, but noticeable dip in applications to university. However, this appears to be a one-year only dip: the 2013 increase in applications is typical of the trend between 2006 and 2011.

2. There is no evidence — despite the fear-mongering of many people — that young people from low-income backgrounds have been disproportionately deterred from applying to university as a result of the increase in fees in England. Indeed, what evidence there is so far shows that the gap in applications between the least advantaged and most advantaged young people is continuing to narrow, albeit very slowly.

3. It is still crucial that the facts about the new fees system are better known. It would be a tragedy if young people end up being deterred through unfounded fears they’ll have to pay university fees up-front, instead of paying them back gradually only once they are earning more than £21,000. A good place to check out the plain facts, devoid of all pro/anti political spin, is Martin Lewis’s MoneySavingExpert Student Loans Mythbusting page, or this YouTube video when he explains the changes to student finance:

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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32 Comments

  • I suppose it’s not surprising that you omitted all mention of the analysis for older applicants, which tells a quite different story. See Figure 17 of the report, for example:
    http://www.ucas.com/system/files/ucas_demand_report_2013.pdf

  • Well, it’s a relief that terrible policy hasn’t impacted application rates overly much. It was rather tiresome last year as the unwinding effect of the pre-rise bump was reported as a devastating fall in university application numbers. Context, journalists, it’s not just a useful word in scrabble! Still figures from part time and mature students remain depressed which is a concern.

  • Also, not having broken long term trends in university applications is hardly an achievement, is it?

  • Coincidentally, Mark Pack does exactly the same thing in his own bit of propaganda:
    http://www.markpack.org.uk/44502/once-again-the-data-shows-everyone-was-wrong-about-tuition-fees/

    The trouble with presenting this kind of slanted, selective version of news is that in the long run people tend to distrust whatever you say.

  • AlanPlatypus 24th Jul '13 - 10:40am

    I’m with you on this Stephen but you’ll never convince the naysayers.

  • Yes, wouldn’t it be a tragedy if young people were deterred by the prospect of paying £27,000 to study for a degree in Applied Manure at the Uni(versity) of Steeple Bumpstead so that they can come out with a 2.2 and expect a ‘graduate job’ which isn’t there due to every bright young soul in the EU, India, the US etc etc. etc coming over to the UK to compete for jobs – not to mention the ‘bed blocking’by 70-somethings who refuse to retire because they”so enjoy their work” (and fancy a third holiday home).

    Ah, the benefits of: doubling participation in ‘university’ education; the free movement of people; overseas student visas with work add-ons and encouraging work beyond 65. It’s all working so well.

  • So David, your answer is what?

  • I think David’s comment gives a good starting point to the fallacy, and the insane notion that we can ‘have it all’, and even create more and more exponential growth for all, ….forever and ever on a finite planet.
    The answers will come, but only when we acknowledge this madness and re-calibrate our thinking to reality. It will be painful.

  • Keep attacking that Straw Man. I can’t actually remember anybody saying anything about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds being put off going to university – if they did then it was certainly no the main concern about fees. The main concern was always about the debt burden being placed on future generations and its distribution between graduates/non-graduates and those on different graduate incomes after they left university. My objection to the dreadful system is that it places too great a burden on graduates and that is disproportionately hits people one middle incomes whilst allowing those on higher graduate incomes to pay less. Tuition fees are strictly regressive in the fiscal sense – high earning graduates will contribute a smaller proportion of their lifetime earnings compared with graduates on lower incomes. This is the complete opposite of Lib Dem policy on HE funding for many years, which was based on progressive taxation.

    As for Martin Lewis’s ‘analysis’ – it makes the same crass simplification of financial advice that his entire career has been built on. He looks at the monthly rate without looking at how much it’s going to impact the graduate over their lifetime. It’s the same with all his other stuff – quite how he’s managed to make so many millions out of telling people to shop around for the lowest interest rate I simply don’t know, but he never looks at financial planning – how much money is it going to cost over the decades, how much is it going to reduce the purchasing power of graduates and their ability to save for retirement, etc.

  • “analysis for older applicants, which tells a quite different story.” Yes, it does. It shows a consistent downward trend since 2010, for all groups aged 22+.

    But increasing attendance rates 20 years ago would be expected to reduce application rates among 40-60 year olds. So that graph doesn’t show bad news today, it shows good news 20 years ago. But, whatever the reasons, there’s no visible impact of tuition fee increases – no pre-rise bump in applications, and no post-rise change in the trend.

  • Ahh, if only the income from fees was sufficient to pay the costs of HE.

    It’s not.

    At some point a future government is going to have to either chuck a massive slab of cash at the HE sector, or increase the interest rates on fees, decrease payment threshold, or all of these, to cover the costs of this disastrously ill-thought out policy.

    People won’t forget that this will have been brought about by lib dems going against a pledge to the electorate.

  • “But increasing attendance rates 20 years ago would be expected to reduce application rates among 40-60 year olds. So that graph doesn’t show bad news today, it shows good news 20 years ago.”

    That interpretation seems quite inconsistent with the data. For one thing the trends are similar for applicants of all ages from 21 upwards, not just for those who would have been of university age 20 years ago. For another, during the 1990s the percentage of non-graduates decreased, starting at about 80%, by only about 1% per year. That rate of annual decrease is obviously nothing like enough to explain the drop in the number of 40-60 years olds applying to university over the last 2 or 3 years.
    http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn04252.pdf

    But really my point is that – whatever arguments can be made about the significance of the figures, and whatever one might think about the merits (or otherwise) of increasing participation in higher education – it doesn’t help if people simply suppress inconvenient information for the sake of conveying a positive political message.

  • Richard Shaw 24th Jul '13 - 1:25pm

    @ g

    “People won’t forget that this will have been brought about by lib dems going against a pledge to the electorate.”

    Would that be the same electorate where 70%+ didn’t vote Lib Dem and voted for parties committed to raising fees anyway? Oh, right.

  • Richard Shaw, the liberal democrats pledged they would vote against any rise in tuition fees.

    I really don’t see how the views of other parties affect this.

    Anyway, this is irrelevant to the real, and growing gap between the money needed by the HE sector and the money given to the HE sector that the coalition’s funding policy is exacerbating.

  • “Would that be the same electorate where 70%+ didn’t vote Lib Dem and voted for parties committed to raising fees anyway?”

    Your point being what, exactly?

  • @Richard Shaw
    “Would that be the same electorate where 70%+ didn’t vote Lib Dem and voted for parties committed to raising fees anyway? Oh, right.”

    The other parties were not committed to raising fees, but both did effectively opt-out of having a manifesto commitment on the issue by deferring to the outcome of the Browne report. A common complaint of the electorate is there is nothing to differentiate between the three parties. On tuition fees, the Lib Dems had a very clearly different policy and commitment, which is partly why so many Lib Dem voters are so annoyed by the u-turn. Are you trying to argue that the number of people put off voting Lib Dem by the u-turn are insignificant compared to the hoards of new voters that will be enticed to voting Lib Dem now they have the same policy as everyone else?

  • My point, Prue, is that it is a cruel deception to ask young people to spend almost £30,000 on a value-less qualification from a worthless institution which will in no way advantage them in the world of work (and please don’t give me a load of guff about the value of ‘learning for its own sake’ about Joint Honours in Refuse Management and Bulgarian Dance at the ‘Uni’ of Northampton). Like it or not, we and young people will – or should – now assess degrees and institutions on their merits as a career proposition. Law at Cambridge; Medicine at Bristol: yes. Noddy courses at numpty former polys, mostly no. Much more vocational and technical training; more practical management courses, yes, so that our young people can have viable futures in useful jobs which their degree makes therm think they are too good for while not qualifying them for in any way shape or form. .

  • Peter Watson 24th Jul '13 - 8:27pm

    I do wonder whether the requirement from 2013 for nursing to require a university degree may be a significant factor here. In terms of applications, nursing is now the most popular degree course and numbers have increased hugely over the last few years as diploma courses are phased out. Additionally, since 2010 scottish nursing applications have been handled by UCAS . In the data provided by UCAS, it appears that nursing applications have been explicitly excluded from time-series analysis of application rates by age because of the effect it has on the results, but not excluded from the data about social background and other factors.
    Obviously there is no reason to assume that student nurses come from a more disadvantaged background than other groups (or to assume that they do not), but if the fee and bursary structure for nursing is different then this might also have an effect because of the size of that new group. I would certainly want to be assured that the time-series data being presented here is genuinely comparing like with like, and other factors are excluded or highlighted, before I would have any confidence in some of the conclusions being drawn about the effect (or lack of one) of increased tuition fees on application rates for different social backgrounds.

  • I admit to being very very unimpressed. There are currently just below three times more University applicants from students of ‘wealthy’ family backgrounds compared to students from ‘average’ or ‘low’ income backgrounds. This is a disgraceful situation that the LibDems bear much of the blame for. We cannot, as a nation, afford to ‘waste’ gifted students because to their financial background. I am still waiting for a Tory or a LibDem to explain how on earth tripling the University tuition fees was ever going to help students from modest financial backgrounds into higher education. I find the above article totally unconvincing, and just empty words. On this issue, as on many others, the LibDems have completely lost the plot post 2010.

    Ah well……… so the easy way out is simply to not publish this piece!

  • Peter Watson 24th Jul '13 - 8:38pm

    @Stephen “It would be a tragedy if young people end up being deterred through unfounded fears they’ll have to pay university fees up-front, instead of paying them back gradually only once they are earning more than £21,000.”
    Though Martin Lewis does point out (http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/students/should-i-get-student-loan) that the high earning children of parents wealthy enough to pay up front can save a lot of money by doing so.
    I also have to ask why, when there is apparently no link between the fees charged by a university and the repayments made by a graduate, why did Lib Dem MPs believe that £9000 fees would be the exception or that universities would compete on the basis of price. I suspect that young people were not the only ones who did not understand the system.

  • Peter Watson 24th Jul '13 - 8:52pm

    @Richard Shaw “Would that be the same electorate where 70%+ didn’t vote Lib Dem and voted for parties committed to raising fees anyway?”
    Setting aside the inconvenient truth that Labour and Conservatives were only committed to waiting to see what Lord Browne recommended and the public reaction to it, and that as Lib Dems we accused them during the election campaign of planning to increase fees while we pledged to vote against any such thing (as well as criticising Labour for its own previous betrayals on this issue), and that many of those 70%+ voted for parties in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who did not increase tuition fees, then surely it is still very important to consider the 25%+ who trusted us and may no longer do so.

  • Alex Baldwin 25th Jul '13 - 3:05pm

    @DAVEN: “There are currently just below three times more University applicants from students of ‘wealthy’ family backgrounds compared to students from ‘average’ or ‘low’ income backgrounds. This is a disgraceful situation that the LibDems bear much of the blame for.”

    How on Earth did you manage to come to the conclusion that the LibDems are responsible for a gap that has been present for the past nine years? Personally, I am actually a bit suspicious of how perfectly parallel (if you consider relative changes) the five lines on that graph are.

  • Edward Russell 25th Jul '13 - 8:02pm

    When Ian Eiloart said ” there’s no visible impact of tuition fee increases”, does nobody else feel that that is just blatantly untrue? Is it not apparent that there is a very notable dip on almost every graph in 2012. The major exception is the line representing applications from Scotland. I wonder why!?

  • I think taxing the future and putting debt in their hands instead of means testing wealthy pensioners from the golden baby boomer age is definitely the way to go. (Not) The lib seems should ashamed this happened it is against their policy and they should’ve dug their heels in, they were the party of the young, now they are splintered. It also annoys me that they quote £27,000 as the cost of a degree. Maybe for rich toffs whose parents can pay the rest. What about accommodate? Food? Fun dare I say it? They’ll leave with £45,000 debt and George and Barbara can keep their state pension to go on their yearly cruise!

  • Peter Watson 26th Jul '13 - 12:17am

    @Jim “It also annoys me that they quote £27,000 as the cost of a degree.”
    They also overlook the fact that our MPs mistakenly (or misleadingly) expected very few universities to charge £9000 per year in the first place.
    Another feature I have noticed (in the maths and physics courses that my son is looking at but the pattern might be repeated in other subjects) is an increasing number of 4 year undergraduate masters courses. The loan repayment system might mean that these £36000 courses are no more expensive to the graduate than a 3 year course (so who is picking up the bill?). This could also adversely affect the availability of postgraduate masters study (making it harder for mature graduates to return to university). The trend started long before tuition fees (I studied a 4 year MEng in the 80s), but it appears to have been exacerbated by the new system under which students are encouraged to seek funding for a 4 year course rather than try to authorise the extra year later.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jul '13 - 11:11pm

    In today’s Guardian it is reported as “good news” that house prices have risen by 1.9%.

    Why is it regarded as a terrible thing that young people have to take on so much debt to get a degree, but “good news” that they have to take on more debt to get a house? How much did house prices rise under the last Labour government? So how much more debt did this mean young people had to take on to get a house? On average, I think, a lot more than £27,000. Why does no-one seem bothered by that?

  • nuclear cockroach 26th Jul '13 - 11:47pm

    @MH

    Because:
    a) it was a Tory press release to the Mail
    b) newpapers just recycle “News” by copying each other, rather than doing any original research
    c) the Guardian and the Mail have strikingly similar aging middle class readerships, both assuming that their readers are delighted by an “I’m alright, Jack, feck you,” rise in property prices

    Would that fit?

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jul '13 - 11:47pm

    @nuclear cockroach

    OK, but this was hardly the first time that the Guardian reported a rise in house prices as “good news”, so I’d put c) as the real answer. Here’s some more:

    d) Trendy lefty types tend to have parents with big houses, which is why though you’ll find them striking many poses, such as opposing student tuition fees, you won’t find them opposing the way the housing and inheritance system so benefits people like them.

    e) Poor people have been fed a constant stream of anti-democratic propaganda about how politics is all bad, not for the likes of them, something they should completely ignore, so you won’t find them getting together to put the case for measures to reduce house prices, and for the general idea that house prices rising beyond their reach is a bad thing.

    f) Given that poor people have been persuaded that politics isn’t for the likes of them, so they shouldn’t vote, there’s no point in politicians doing anything to try and get their votes, like putting forward policies that are in their favour, especially when those policies disfavour those most likely to vote.

    g) The political far left in this country is run by people who still act as if they are paid by Moscow gold – so to them, being left means obsessing about foreign policy issues i.e. find out whatever the USA is doing and who they are supporting and oppose it. It doesn’t mean putting forward policies which appeal to poor people, or which might get poor people thinking and politically active. Currently it mostly means making an alliance with the right-wing of Islam.

    h) The rest of the political left in this country is run by people who think being left means being socially liberal rather than fighting for the poor.

    i) Those most badly affected by rising house prices are working class southerners, and no-one gives a toss for them.

  • “On average, I think, a lot more than £27,000. Why does no-one seem bothered by that?”

    At least when they buy a house they get somewhere to live.

    In many cases, all they get in return for the university fees debt is three years taken out of their lives and deferred permission finally to enter the employment market.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jul '13 - 6:16pm

    Chris

    In many cases, all they get in return for the university fees debt is three years taken out of their lives and deferred permission finally to enter the employment market.

    The material I teach at university gets people jobs, it is skills that are in big demand. I know this because of the feedback I get from previous students like “What you taught me got me my job” and “Now I’m working in the industry, I can see how relevant were all the points you were making” and “Your course was the foundation of my career”. The material I teach in my module alone would cost about £9,000 in a course in the private sector, and the private sector course would teach it in a shallow way and not give a proper assessment.

    The biggest problem I face is that half the students on my module can’t be bothered to put in the work required to learn the material. I.e. they don’t turn up to lectures and labs, don’t do the exercises, don’t read the notes, give up when it becomes a little stretching.

  • Is it not a concern that the gap between various groups (e.g., most and least advantaged) has not decreased in the slightest over the 10 year period?

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