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

Stories about education are meant to include photos of people jumping in the air, no?

Stories about education are meant to include photos of people jumping in the air, no?

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.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '13 - 11:46am

    @Mark Pack “The number of teenagers is falling”
    It occurs to me that Lib Dem support for free schools opening willy-nilly flies could lead to over-provision school closures, etc. if the demand for places is falling.
    Could you point me to a good source for the stats on demographics that can be used to work out the proportion of teenagers applying for / taking up places? Cheers.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '13 - 11:54am

    @Mark Pack “not being a system of up front fees”
    Surely it is up-front fees in terms of the universities receiving their money, whether that be from the Student Loans Company (though spread over the year AFAIR) or from students ineligible for loans? Rather it is the repayment of those loans that is not up-front, beginning after graduation (though under the new system interest accumulates on those loans from the beginning).
    Might up-front payment of increased fees be a contributing factor to the falling numbers of mature students who may be ineligible for a loan (because of age, previous study, etc.)?

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '13 - 11:57am

    @Mark Pack “Applications are not the same as acceptances”
    Similar question – can you point me to a good source for this info.
    I appreciate the points you make above but it would be a bit more helpful to have the data (or know where it is) in order to put your advice into practice. I know, ‘Just Google It’, but hopefully you’ve already done that for me :-)

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '13 - 3:14pm

    I think that looking at figures for individual universities is difficult since each applicant can apply for a maximum of 5 places (4 in some subjects, can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge), and there is a huge range of applications per place for different institutions and subjects.
    Google took me to UCAS’ own figures ( and
    Too much info to digest quickly (to say the least), but headline figures for university acceptances of English students in English institutions from the first document shows for the last few entry years:
    341,759 (09/10), 343,242 (10/11), 363,147 (11/12), 316,848 (12/13)
    and from the second document’s key points:
    “Fewer applicants in 2012, a small increase in the acceptance rate, a large fall in acceptances”
    “Recruitment into the 2012-13 academic year decreased substantially in England and Wales
    The majority of this weakness in demand is associated with applicant to institution flows where tuition
    fees increased in 2012.”
    But lower down,
    “Entry rate for English 18 year olds fell in 2012 but remains higher than all other cycles, save 2011″
    so there might be something for every point of view in the stats!
    Even these overall figures might conceal a change in the pattern of applications since the introduction of higher tuition fees, with some subjects or institutions becoming more or less attractive, or students becoming less geographically mobile by choosing to stay at home, all of which could have significant long-term consequences.

    Returning to the thrust of your article, even if Lib Dems can produce statistics to quantify the effect on university applications and spreadsheets to show comparisons between student loan repayment regimes for different scenarios, it is the sort of thing that will fly over the heads of most of us. And opponents and supporter can all selectively quote the figures that suit them. The challenge is to address the simple political accusation of betrayal and the wider corrosive damage of a loss of trust, and that needs a simple political message. I don’t think that Clegg’s “sorry” was helpful since it acknowledged that there was something wrong that required an apology but it was unclear exactly what he was apologising for. Equally, having endorsed and defended the new system (and essentially accepted its likelihood as early as the coalition agreement negotiations), it might be difficult to now say “There aren’t enough Lib Dem MPs so we did not get what we wanted but tried to make a bad idea better.”

  • @Dave Page
    If 50% of a level students believe that, there are a lot of teachers / careers advisers who need sacking.

  • AlanPlatypus 18th Jan '13 - 7:35pm

    @ Dave Page @ Steve Way

    Lest we forget the deliberate misinformation given out by Labour and the NUS, no wonder so many students are confused. I occasionally find myself having to explain the loan system to teachers such is the level of misunderstanding.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '13 - 8:19pm

    @Dave Page “There were some interesting statistics from the London Evening Standard claiming that 50% of A-level students believe that they have to pay £27k upfront to go to University and this has put many off even applying.”
    The figures came from a YouGov poll conducted for the University of Roehampton in August 2012, and the Standard reported, “The Roehampton poll found that 51 per cent of London students thought they would have to pay their tuition fees before starting a course, compared with 44 per cent nationally.”
    However, I think the report is a bit misleading (and doesn’t indicate whether students thought they paid for the whole course upfront or just the first year). If we look at the results of the poll ( the data is based upon the first question which asks, “How much, if anything, do you think new UK university students (i.e. those starting in the academic year 2012/ 13) will have to pay to their university in tuition fees _before_ they start their course?”, to which the responses allowed were “Full tuition fees for a year”, “Half tuition fees for a year”, “Nothing”, “Don’t Know”. Fees are received by the university at the beginning, whether from the student or the student loans company (after 90 days anyway), and the question does not refer to loans for tuition fees, so I don’t think it is obvious how the respondents would interpret the question. In a later question, 77% of respondents knew the loan was repaid on salaries above £21000 (and a further 15% thought it was the old level of £15000), so they did appear to understand that it was a loan paid post-graduation (though interestingly, they believed they would be worse off each month than previous graduates on the same salary, so that part of the message had not been understood).

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '13 - 8:21pm

    @AlanPlatypus “Lest we forget the deliberate misinformation given out by Labour and the NUS, no wonder so many students are confused.”
    Any examples of the deliberate misinformation that we can nail here?

  • AlanPlatypus 18th Jan '13 - 8:58pm

    @ Peter Watson

    Sadly no, it’s all from a good few years back. I remember the arguments though, they were fun.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jan '13 - 11:22pm

    Peter Watson

    Equally, having endorsed and defended the new system (and essentially accepted its likelihood as early as the coalition agreement negotiations), it might be difficult to now say “There aren’t enough Lib Dem MPs so we did not get what we wanted but tried to make a bad idea better.”

    It shouldn’t be. That’s what democratic politics is about – you come together and work out a compromise which is sort of the average of everyone’s position. What’s wrong with that? If everyone sat around and said they wouldn’t budge unless they got everything 100% their own way, the country would be ungovernable. The line that with 57 MPs to the Tories’ 306 in the coalition we can’t shape the governments policies but we can colour in some of the details seems to me to be not a bad one. What’s wrong with saying we accept that because it’s what the people voted for, but it would a different sort of government were it 306 LibDem MPs and 57 Tories? Aren’t we going to be going into the next election arguing the case for having more Liberal Democrat MPs? So why therefore should we be afraid of saying the situation now is not as good as we would like due to there being so few Liberal Democrat MPs?

  • Peter Watson 19th Jan '13 - 11:27am

    I think the approach that you describe (regularly!) is one that Lib Dem leaders should have followed from the beginning, and it is probably not too late for them to go forward making the point that they are a small part of the government. But having failed to do so in the past, they risk looking inconsistent and unprincipled if they now begin to distance themselves from policies they have enthusiastically endorsed over the last couple of years, and in many cases it is those policies which have already damaged the party. Tuition fees is a particularly high profile example, mainly because of the publicity generated during the election campaign and afterwards about pledges. There has been a lot of support for the new system from senior Lib Dems (and here) as being “fair” or “fairer” so it would be hard for the party to row back now, even if it wanted to.

  • I completely accept Matthew H’s point, I just don’t accept the average outcome. Our candidates had signed pledges not to vote for an increase in fees. That should have been part of our ‘package’in the negotiation because our credibility depended upon it. We now have learned well meant optimistic articles attempting to diffuse the impact of our betrayal.

  • Peter Watson ” There has been a lot of support for the new system from senior Lib Dems (and here) as being “fair” or “fairer” so it would be hard for the party to row back now, even if it wanted to.”

    The situation is very confused as the official party policy is still to get rid of tuition fees and fund higher education from general taxation (though we now know that the Lib Dem leadership never actually believed in this at all) . . At some point the party is going to have to make its mind up.

  • Peter Watson ” they have enthusiastically endorsed over the last couple of years, and in many cases it is those policies which have already damaged the party”

    Exactly right. And they are still doing it, with Secret Courts, Rights for Shares etc etc. against the will of their own Conference.

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