Five questions you should ask to make sense of the university application figures

Tomorrow the first UCAS application figures for this year are officially published, with some leaked figures having appeared in the Sunday Times today. Superficially the headline figures are not great with an apparent 10% drop. But I’m holding off forming a view until I’ve seen the full figures, because there are five key questions to ask about the figures:

1. 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)?

2. What is the social breakdown of any changes? An widely held but rarely tested assumption in the debates over university finance has been that potential students from less well off hosueholds are going to be more put off by the new fees scheme, and in particularly the large nominal debt figures, than those from better off households. However, when you look at actual repayment levels (and bear in mind the writing off of unpaid debt), those from the least well off households generally should find the new scheme more attractive. Which is turning out to be the case?

3. 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?

4. Is the change in applications in England any different from that in Scotland? If it is, then tuition fees can be pointed to as the cause. If it isn’t, then it is something else.

5. And finally, when comparing figures, how do they look when counted not in simple numbers but as a proportion of the 18 year old population? That’s relevant as if I understand the population figures correctly, the number of 18 year olds is dropping.

Or in other words, expects lots of dramatic statements about the figures, a large number of which will be wrong. Which are wrong will depend on the answers to these questions.

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  • Harry Matthews 23rd Oct '11 - 10:42am

    It doesn’t tend to be the deadline. It is the deadline for Oxbridge, Medecine &c.

    We won’t have the full picture till after admissions close on 15th January.

  • Andrew Starr 23rd Oct '11 - 11:34am

    Or in other words, are there any excuses we can hide behind to absolve ourselves of responsibility for a less educated future workforce.

  • “However, when you look at actual repayment levels (and bear in mind the writing 0ff of unpaid debt), those from the least well off households generally should find the new scheme more attractive. Which is turning out to be the case?”

    Surely it’s been pointed out enough times now that repayment levels depend on earnings after graduation, and not on whether the student comes from a poor household?

  • Clearly the effects of last year’s bulge need to be subtracted out for any meaningful comparison to be made. And yes the key thing is any difference in relative drop between socio-economic backgrounds.

    Finally, the courses that experience drops are important. Frankly I will be pleased to see a drop in the number of students eating up tax-payers money studying courses like media studies. If subjects like engineering and medicine see drop then the alarm bells should start ringing.

  • Mboy, media studies degrees have better graduate employment rates than engineering given the importance of media industries in the UK. It’s unfortunate that they have become a target for unthinkingly rightwing kneejerk defenders of a past that never was.

  • Mark – as you say, there was a bulge last year. 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.

  • @MBoy

    You’re right, in fact I’d like to see the targets for bursaries and scholarships scrapped and replaced with generous living allowances for those from low income families doing degrees with reasonable employment prospects. The degree distinction needs to be made because encouraging disadvantaged children to spend three years of their life for a degree with very little benefit damages social mobility, not to mention forcing the taxpayer to underwrite the cost burdens the economy.

  • re-arrange these two well known phrases…

    straws. at. clutching.

    your. in. early. getting. excuses.

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Oct '11 - 1:41am

    Those aren’t excuses, they’re rebuttals of nonsense and lies which are guaranteed to appear in certain media outlets. It’s basically a list of 5 ways that anybody can use to make the numbers look bad, regardless of whether they are good or bad.

  • Note On excuse no 4. So no english students study in Scotland? The only real measure for fee effect in Scotland is the reduction in students from England applying. I believe currently Edinburgh and St Andrews have more English than Scottish students.

  • It’s early days yet, but here are the figures

    So, to examine these excuses one by one. Excuse 1: at this point in the cycle, all courses are down on last year, except for some of the combined ones. One of the most serious falls is in the social sciences, in JACS class L, which covers economics, politics, social work and geography – a group of subjects which outperformed the norm in terms of employability during the recession (because the mix of skills were useful to flexible employers). Another is JACS class B, subjects allied to medicine. This is dominated by nursing. You run the risk of headlines saying policy is leading to fewer people training as nurses.

    Excuse 2. The data on background for UCAS applicants isn’t really good enough to draw firm conclusions. However the largest falls are from applicants from Yorkshire, the North East, the North West, the East Midlands and East. There’s a fairly clear pattern about those regions. Mature students are also very strongly down.

    Excuse 3. Down on 2010 applications. There’s a graph showing it.

    Excuse 4. Explain why a change has to be different in Scotland? It doesn’t. Scottish students still go to university in England. Or, at least, they did (about 10% do, in fact). Anyhow, Scottish students are also down. If you look at the percentage, it’s not unadjacent to the number you’d expect if there were a small, population-linked drop in Scottish students applying to Scottish institutions, and if, there was, essentially, a complete disappearance of the Scottish cohort applying to English institutions. I might venture to suggest that this is quite a plausible outcome, especially if you think that the Scots will be unable (or unwilling) to sustain their current system of financial help for Scottish students studying in England.

    Excuse 5 is actually valid. We do have fewer 18 year olds, and will year on year until 2020.

  • Anyway, I think at this point, UUK’s response covers all the salient points:

    Too early to say anything definitive.

  • Chris Riley 24th Oct '11 - 1:51pm

    Mark, I disagree with parts of your analysis, and don’t believe some of them are really relevant, but I think we’re all best waiting until all the data is in before anyone tries to draw conclusions.

    Louise, Martin Lewis is making the very basic error of assuming that students only make choices based on cost. The White Paper has made very fundamental changes to HE, which include increasing the cost to students.

    If students are deterred from applying to university, they may also be put off for other reasons – the reduction of support for students due to squeezed budgets, the perception – fuelled partly by the Lib Dems in Opposition as it was an easy jibe, even if woefully unevidenced – that a degree lacks the value it once did, an apparent focus on utilitarianism in HE, the desire to bring private sector providers in regardless of quality, incoherent policy making, excessive politicisation of the sector – the list goes on.

    Cost is only one factor, and Lewis should refrain from insulting young people and people in HE just because they don’t buy what he is paid to sell to them. He might actually reflect that he isn’t doing a very good job of getting his message across (and this might be because it’s flawed). And you can’t blame young people for concluding that fewer of them should be going to university when a large part of your own party have spent the thick end of two decades misleading them in that direction that for political advantage.

  • Chris Riley 24th Oct '11 - 2:27pm

    Worth, when considering changes in the post-16 educational landscape, noting that there seems to be a sharp rise in adult apprenticeships.

    Before anyone rushes to an obvious conclusion, I suggest you read the piece linked.

    However, there is unlikely to be absolutely no relationship between changes in take-up of different post-compulsary options.

  • I just looked at the numbers here, in response to Mark’s point 5.

    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.

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Oct '11 - 7:27pm

    Down on 2010 applications.

    But 2010 was a record high, and these numbers are up from 2009 applications… where were also a record high.

    I concur that it’s way too soon to conclude anything, but so far? I’m not seeing the drop here. It’s looking more like a 1% blip at 2010, and the expected gap year shifts from 2012 to 2011. If you stick another couple of decades on the back of that graph, you’ll find that such blips are not uncommon.

  • Keith Browning 24th Oct '11 - 7:43pm

    Just watched an item on BBC South about the ‘horrendous’ cost of tuition fess making it ‘impossible’ for many to go to Uni. The ‘expert’ was asked how people could possibly afford the cost, and he suggested sponsorship and asking to borrow money from parents, but NEVER mentioned it was a ‘pay as you go and what you can afford’ post degree system.

    The Coalition have done such a BAD job educating the media. It is quite unbelievable !!

  • Stuart Mitchell 24th Oct '11 - 8:49pm

    Keith: “Just watched an item on BBC South about the ‘horrendous’ cost of tuition fess making it ‘impossible’ for many to go to Uni… It is quite unbelievable !!”

    I seem to remember 18 months ago quite a few Lib Dem MPs saying how “horrendous” fees of £21,000 over three years would be, never mind the £27,000 we eventually ended up with. Those same MPs also kept telling us how an increase in fees would put many young people off going to university (which sadly has turned out to be true).

    Keith, when all that was going on, were you of the opinion that those Lib Dems were talking rubbish, or were you nodding your head in agreement??

    Insisting that £27,000 worth of debt is “nominal”, and that those who are opposed to fees are idiots who just don’t get it, does not strike me as a fruitful tactic for the Lb Dems. Nor does trying to make a virtue out of the fact that graduates can avoid paying off the debts altogether, by the simple “expedient” of spending the next thirty years on low wages.

  • Chris Riley 24th Oct '11 - 8:57pm

    @Andrew Suffield

    “If you stick another couple of decades on the back of that graph, you’ll find that such blips are not uncommon.”

    They happen, but they are uncommon. The last one was in 2006, when applicant numbers fell. I think we all know why that was (tuition fees). The Lib Dem spokesperson on education at the time was Ed Davey, and naturally, he castigated the Government.

    Prior to that, they fell in 1999 (marginally) and 2000 (marginally). That was attributed to changes in fees and loan repayment schemes, but as Labour were still enjoying their extended honeymoon, I can’t find any Opposition quotes complaining about it.

    tl;dr. Drops in UCAS applicant numbers in the last 20 years are not a natural statistical blip. They are all extremely strongly correlated with changes in fees regimes and previously the Lib Dems have asserted that.

    The reality is that history suggests you are likely to see a drop in student application numbers that, in the past when it has happened to other parties, the Lib Dems have (probably correctly) attributed to students being put off by increased fees.

    The challenge is this – firstly, are you comfortable, in the current economic climate, with being seen to be deterring (even temporarily) young people from entering university?

    Secondly, are the Lib Dems willing to stand up sufficiently for the HE system to convince young people that it’s a good thing to apply to? Not to defend the fees policy – as I understand it, you actually oppose fees. But to finally stand up in public and say ‘we think the UK university system is a good one, and here’s why it’s worth going’.

    Because if you want the policy to stand any chance of success, you need to do that, and it’s a message that we simply haven’t heard from the Lib Dems. Even David Willetts (who is a real enthusiast for universities, even if I disagree strongly with his methods) is more of an advocate of higher education than the party who had, at the last election, the largest proportion of degree-level voters, who purport to be advocates of evidence-based policy, and who went so far out of their way to court the student vote that they currently (and probably temporarily) hold seats based on that votes. Where are the principled voices from the Lib Dems explaining why people should go to university? Where are the arguments? Why are you not standing up for an internationally respected UK sector? Why do you expect people to go to university when you don’t come across as being convinced they should go?

  • Chris Riley 24th Oct '11 - 9:20pm

    Yes, I know I put the tl;dr less than halfway through a mammoth block of text. What can I say? I’m offering a lot of rhetoric to the notional pound.

  • UK applicants are now down 15%.

    We are still perceived as having an internationally strong sector; the drop in overseas students is smaller, but the argument is being lost in the UK.

    Where are the Lib Dem voices telling young people about the strengths of a university education?

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