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 an earlier deadline (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

University campusOverall then, once you delve beneath the headline nominal figures and factor in demographic change and 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, for 18 year olds 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. The picture for mature would be students is less good, though there is also the wider value judgement of whether the strong looking figures for apprenticeship and other vocational training shows a healthy or unwelcome shift.

Put all the factors together as the story so far is, if anything, one of no change caused by tuition fees on 18 year olds.

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.

Read more by or more about , , , or .
This entry was posted in News.
Bookmark the web address for this page or use the short url http://ldv.org.uk/25700 for Twitter and emails.

22 Comments

  • Is this supposed to make us feel better? Surely no one believes that we will be forgiven or forgotten for the betrayal of written promises do they?

  • I’m puzzled by this talk of a “pre-fees bulge” last year.

    According to the figures on the linked page, the number of applicants last year was indeed higher than the previous year – by 6.6%. But the previous year there had been an even bigger rise – of 11.6% – and the year before that had also seen a rise – of 6.5%.

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the number of applicants had been rising steadily for at least three years, and it has now dropped by 9%?

    The other thing is that while it may seem quite clever to separate out the 18 year-olds and point out that the decrease in the number of applications is similar to the decrease in the birth rate, there is obviously a flip side to that argument. If you separate out the over-18s, you’ll see that there has been a decrease of just under 16% in the number of applications. Among those aged 25 and over, the decrease is nearly 23%.

  • Chris Riley 25th Oct '11 - 9:59am

    I appreciate Stuart’s point is comforting, but firstly, have you checked the figures for 19 year olds – which show a significant fall – and secondly, are you really sure the Lib Dems should be focussing just on one half of the applicant cohort (‘traditional’ 18 year old entrants) to the detriment of everyone else (who have all dropped significantly)?

    The extra numbers taking vocational training are much smaller than the current shortfall in the over 25 age group entering HE.

    This passage is troubling: “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.”

    ‘Sources who have seen fuller data’, eh? First up, there are only a limited number of people who have access to that data. I now have a pretty good idea to within a small group of people which individual might have been indiscreet about embargoed data to a political activist.

    The data as currently published shows the largest drops in the least affluent regions of the country. UCAS data tends to use POLAR2 as a marker for applicant background, which is derived from postcode of domicile (data on social background is an imprecise science, but personally, I rather like POLAR2, so it’s about the best data available). This would mean that sub-regionally, some very peculiar things must be happening at the moment, and I personally would take some convincing that this is really the case.

    As for Scotland, your comparison only works if you treat England as a homogenous entity. The regional data shows strong differences. I disagree with your point there.

    “Put all the factors together as the story so far is, if anything, one of no change caused by tuition fees on 18 year olds.”

    The gentlest observation I could make is that if this were true, it would be the first change to the fees regime ever to have no effect on applications and it would fly in the face of absolutely everything else we know about student intentions at the moment.

    I suggest you’d be better employed considering the implications of a drop in applications due to the tuition fees policy and how the party approaches that, because the longer you pretend there’s no issue, the worst the issue becomes when you’re finally forced to face it.

    This is rather ironic because, of course, whilst you were posting this, David Cameron was busy dealing with the consequences of refusing to confront Tory issues on Europe.

  • “‘Sources who have seen fuller data’, eh? First up, there are only a limited number of people who have access to that data. I now have a pretty good idea to within a small group of people which individual might have been indiscreet about embargoed data to a political activist. ”

    It turns out I was wrong both in general and in point of fact.

    I apologise unreservedly, Mark, and will check my facts before I post in future.

  • Chris – the reason to consider 18 year olds, and the reason 19 year olds have shown a large drop, is that the vast majority of 19 year olds are students who chose to take a gap year (a few who were held back a year or needed an extra year on A levels maybe, but mostly gap year students). The fact that applications from 18 year olds has not dropped but 19 year olds has would to me strongly suggest that when presented with a choice between the new fee’s system and not going, people choose the new fee’s system, and that it is only when presented with a choice between the old fees system or the new fees system and a gap year that people choose the old fees system.
    So far I’ve just used the statistics from this article, but using a little bit of supposition, let’s suppose that gap years are disproportionately taken by students from higher earning families (a stereotype, but I’d suggest fairly reasonable, given that they can afford to do so more easily, relying on parental support for another year before getting student finance to support themselves, and having money to spend on travelling etc), these are the people who are more likely to go on to earn more after university, and so more likely to be better under the old system (rather than people who will earn less post uni and never pay everything back under the new system) and so are being fairly rational about it. Of course this relies on my supposition on who takes gap years being accurate (which it may or may not be, I couldn’t find the statistics with a quick google, if anyone can I would be interested to see them).
    In more general terms though, the break down by class, or by parents earning, is the essential key to working out what the trend is here (it would help with my guess work above as well as answering some other fairly important questions), along of course with date from the next 2 or 3 years to make it more reliable, so it is in all honesty to early to say anything with certainty, and we will have a better idea by the next election, but I’m not sure Mark’s hope is entirely misplaced here.

  • As an 18 year old Lib Dem and as a 1st year undergraduate i can tell you that I stopped reading this after the initial assertion regarding the number of 18 year olds being fewer in 1993 than 1992, which is almost completely irrelevant to this debate. The majority of last years applicants will now be 18, but the British education system means that that most of the applicants for this year will have been born in 1994. Therefore at least the first paragraph needs revising in my opinion. Furthermore, this article provides no justification for the massive betrayal of the Liberal Democrat’s student supporters. I campaigned in the last election, inspired by the electoral manifesto. If i’d haveknown it was all going to be worthless I’d have stayed at homeand focused on my exams.

  • Regarding my last post, i meant of course to say the number of births in 1992 rather than the number of 18 year olds – who by my reckoning didnt pay tuition fees at all!

  • Tony Dawson 25th Oct '11 - 7:17pm

    I think Mark’s analysis is right but the issue is ‘so what’? (it was bad of those who tried to make a thing out of the gross fall in applications but then they would, wouldn’t they).

    You are 18 and you are hating the Lib Dems over their betrayal (or mispresentation, take your pick) on tuition fees and you look out there at England and at all the millions of jobs available for 18 years olds without qualifications. So what are you going to do? University looks like the best bet (while stocks last).

  • Stuart Mitchell 25th Oct '11 - 7:24pm

    By and large, the kind of people who apply for Oxford, Cambridge, and medicine/dentistry/veterinary courses are not really the people we feared might be put off by the £9,000 fees. The fact that applications have fallen so sharply even among these groups really should be making us the opposite of complacent.

    A BBC survey published yesterday found that 10% of potential students have definitely been put off by the Lib Dems’ fee increase, while another 54% have been partly put off :-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-15392743

  • If you look at the full details, the number of Scots applying to Scottish univs has fallen more than the number of English students applying to English univs. Hard to think that this is tuition fee rises.

    The mature student falls are a concern, but few mature students have a need to apply early – few apply to Oxbridge or for medicine. Later figures will be more informative.

  • daft ha'p'orth 26th Oct '11 - 1:13am

    @Mark Pack

    I find it amusing that this demographic change issue received little mention from the govt until it became a convenient excuse for an apparent drop in applications. Can’t remember anyone saying, ‘hey, we can reduce costs by 10% by (ta daa) changing nothing’ yet now we are told that this was apparently the case all along. Thi being the case, why did we bother with the fee hike already?

  • Ed Shepherd 26th Oct '11 - 8:51am

    Young people look at the job market and see mass unemployment. Therefore, many of them decide to bite the bullet and do a university course whilst borrowing tens of thousands of pounds to do the course. They probably see it as a more productive option than being unemployed. They know that they will run up vast debts and will probably be underemployed at the end of the degree but it still seems more worthwhile than being unemployed. No matter what spin is put on the situation following the appalling rise in fees, it is still disgaceful that young people have to take on decades of debt in order to try to find something cosntructive to do with their lives. Me, I’ll vote for a party that recognizes that all education should be free at the point of delivery to the student. Let’s face it, millionaire politicians like Nick Clegg never had to go into debt for their expensive educations so why should anyone else?

  • Chris Riley 26th Oct '11 - 8:53am

    @daft ha’p’orth

    On the contrary, David Willetts has been banging on about the demographic drop for years and it forms part of the rationale for limiting student places. The media didn’t pay much attention, but that’s different, because despite their best efforts they don’t completely run the country yet.

    @tim, Mark,

    I repeat: dickering over Scots and English students is irrelevant at this stage because there are very strong regional effects, and because the English figures are made to look much better because London and the South East are (as alwaysin these things) different. If you want to argue that there’s no problem because the most affluent parts of England have shown a lower drop in applications than Scotland, then that’s your prerogative.

    You’ll be wrong, and you’ll be deliberately avoiding an opportunity to plan a strategy to address the issue, but politically, the consequences will be on your heads, and that doesn’t concern me particularly.

    The real consequences will, of course, be on the heads of young people and those like me who support them, but we’re already trying to work out our next steps based on the information we’re getting. I’m guessing we need to redouble our *non-partisan* advocacy of post-compulsary education offerings and the evidence base underpinning their effectiveness (and we need to do that with falling budgets, as always).

    @tim

    Why, in that case, have mature students decided to apply later this year than they did last? That’s not a very satisfactory explanation – you and Mark are not trying to understand the figures. You’re trying to explain why the figures are not an issue, which is slightly different.

  • Chris Riley 26th Oct '11 - 9:04am

    @Ed Shepherd

    Any young person who checks the data will conclude that they probably *won’t* be underemployed after a degree (although a substantial minority are still underemployed after six months). Of course a lot (including some who might not benefit as much – although the greater issue is people who ought to be going and don’t) will take the option in that circumstance.

    I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that Lib Dems have hardly been at the vanguard of pointing out that the initial outcomes for most graduates are actually favourable over the last few years.

    Even now, the party is rather short of capable people familiar with HE data and able to credibly explain the pros and cons on their merits.

  • @ Stuart Mitchell

    I completely agree that the early aplication date courses (especially Oxbridge) are likely to be unrepresentative. Equally I wonder whether the real impact will be felt further down the line as the BBC survey perhaps indicates. Should the majority of applicants still go to uni, based on the current job market (@ Tony Dawson), it is later down the track when the problems could occur.

    These problems could be multiple – for example it doesn’t seem completely clear that the graduate liability will be ignored when applying for a mortgage, any chance of paying back early will be hit with big penalties (although this is being looked), 30 years is a long time to trust our beloved financial institutions to ignore the debt in the provision of wider credit.

    My background is in the financial world rather than HE data I am afraid, but as a parent of children either at or applying for uni, I have been very much involved recently. It seems that, post graduation, if you are very rich or very poor this system is great, however If you work hard, do long hours and earn a good salary but not a massive one, you will be hit very hard and will repay the most. Yes many people would say that £40k is a salary to be thankful for, but you won’t be rolling in it, certainly when you are shouldering a bigger share of the debt than many of your richer colleagues.

    The state paid for my university education in the early 1980′s, I was lucky enough to get to a good university and get good well paid jobs afterwards, helped by my degree. I have paid many. many multiples of the cost of my HE education in tax since and have been happy to do so. Before ditching this system we should have looked in a considered, and wide ranging way, at the changes, cost and supply of HE, taking into account the massive increase in demand over the last 30 years.

    Politically for us (Lib Dems) this has been a disaster and will continue to be for years, possibly generations – it will be back in headlines this time next year in a big way for example – trust is a very difficult thing to regain and takes a long, long time. We must look again at this area and at the very least put much bigger pressure on Uni’s to reduce the fee levels. But much, more importantly is the future of our young graduates. Saddling them with this liability (and yes I know all the “positives”) is plain wrong and very illiberal.

    Chris Smith

  • @Chris Smith
    ” It seems that, post graduation, if you are very rich or very poor this system is great, however If you work hard, do long hours and earn a good salary but not a massive one, you will be hit very hard and will repay the most. Yes many people would say that £40k is a salary to be thankful for, but you won’t be rolling in it, certainly when you are shouldering a bigger share of the debt than many of your richer colleagues.”

    Quite. I’ve repeatedly made the same point on numerous occassions. It is the majority on graduate middle incomes that will be disproportionately hit with the new system. There’s every reason to go to uni for three years if all you intend to do afterwards is work in mcdonalds (leaving a deficit for future taxpayers) or if you think there’s a good chance of landing a highly paid job. However, for those that aspire to normal graduate incomes, the lifetime financial benefit of going to university is not worth the investment in terms of the extra work involved. If the system still exists then I would advise my children to become a plumber rather than a scientist, engineer, teacher, etc.

  • Liberal Neil 26th Oct '11 - 6:00pm

    @Ed Shepherd “Me, I’ll vote for a party that recognizes that all education should be free at the point of delivery to the student”

    Whilst I agree with what I think you mean, I’m not sure this is what you mean. Under the Government’s scheme higher education is free at the point of delivery to the student.

  • Stuart Mitchell 27th Oct '11 - 6:49pm

    Chris Smith: “I was lucky enough to get to a good university and get good well paid jobs afterwards, helped by my degree. I have paid many. many multiples of the cost of my HE education in tax since and have been happy to do so.”

    Quite so. As long as graduates pay more in tax than non-graduates, fees seem hard to justify. At the aggregate level, it’s an investment in wealth creators, not some wasteful expense that somebody ought to be punished for.

    We don’t make sick people pay 9% more tax for 30 years to pay back the cost of their health care. (Not yet anyway.) Nor do we have a similar pay-back scheme for people who receive benefits for a time. Higher education is arguably a more profitable use of taxpayers’ money.

  • Stuart Mitchell: “As long as graduates pay more in tax than non-graduates, fees seem hard to justify. At the aggregate level, it’s an investment in wealth creators, not some wasteful expense that somebody ought to be punished for.”

    That’s what the Germans have concluded, which is why they’ve scrapped university fees. Of course, what possible lessons could we learn about long-term economic planning from Germany?

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?




Recent Comments

  • User AvatarEddie Sammon 28th Jul - 11:18am
    Hi Peter, we are going a bit off topic, so I'll try to keep it short. I think loyalty to broadly "liberal" principles are the...
  • User Avatarjedibeeftrix 28th Jul - 11:14am
    "with William Dartmouth and Jill Seymour registering no votes at all, not even against Lithuania adopting the euro." Why would they want to do that...
  • User AvatarMatthew Huntbach 28th Jul - 10:59am
    Stephen Hesketh I love all this talk of fables and ice cream vans but it doesn’t take into account the issue of the customers having...
  • User Avatarpeter tyzack 28th Jul - 10:55am
    love the old photo, where on earth did you find it.?.. no school looks like that anymore..!
  • User Avatarpaul barker 28th Jul - 10:55am
    This sounds good to me, especially if we can stop comment threads turning into private conversations between 2 or 3 people.
  • User Avatarjedibeeftrix 28th Jul - 10:40am
    no complaints from me, Caron. :)