Understanding the university application figures

Ahead of the preliminary university application figures late last year, I posted five questions by which to judge them when they were published. The gist of all the questions was, “what do the figures really mean if you scratch beneath the surface?”. In particular, the big spike in applications in the last year before the new fee arrangements, coupled with the declining teenage population, means that crude headline number comparisons can be very misleading. As it turned out, the five questions were a pretty good guide to what the university application figures really meant.

Now that we have the full set of figures for normal applications (late applications will carry on for some time yet), it is worth returning to the same basic points.

Once you strip out the spike last year and factor in the population decline (the 18 year old population peaked in 2009), the figures show something rather remarkable:

University campusThe proportion of English school leavers applying for university places this year is higher than it ever was under Labour, and is the second highest on record (second only to last year’s pre-fees change spike).

It’s worth saying that again, as judging by the initial news reports just about all of the media have missed it:

The proportion of English school leavers applying for university places this year is higher than it ever was under Labour, and is the second highest on record (second only to last year’s pre-fees change spike).

What certainly has dropped is the number of applications from would-be mature students. That is an important (and almost wholly neglected) issue. Against that, on the up side, applications from people from the most deprived backgrounds have held up.

The ironic net effect is that with applications from the most deprived backgrounds holding up, if anything the changes overall have produced a small net improvement in social mobility, albeit via a slightly bizarre back door route. (Stephen Tall has highlighted the evidence from UCAS on this and put together this excellent graph.)

Moreover, what we don’t yet know is how much of the fall in would-be full time mature students is caused by them shifting to applying for part-time courses instead, as they are excluded from these figures. Given that the changes in fee arrangements includes providing tuition fee loans to part time students for the first time, it would be logical to expect some people to shift from full time to part time. It is likely too that the general economic situation is encouraging more people to think about part time rather than full time study to help sustain overall levels of household income. We will need more data to judge that later in the year.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • The argument about tuition fees was never about access, and very obviously so. Looking at the numbers of applicants is a straw-man.

    Here are four actual issues with tuition fees (versus funding by graduate tax or general taxation):

    1. Is the burden of payment/reward between graduates and non-graduates fair and does it create good economic/social incentives?

    2. Is the burden of payment across graduates incomes fair and create good economic/social incentives?

    3. Is the system fair in representing the inter-generational contributions towards funding HE?

    4. Are the plans financially sound, preventing future tax-payers from paying for a deficit caused by present day political opportunism?

    To answer these questions, we need to run the experiment for 30 years and then find out whether those that are applying to university today think their current investment made sense, how much the government in 30 years time will need to make up the shortfall caused by credit write-downs and how well the economy has performed as a result of the incentives/disincentives created by the system.

    I’m a patient man, but 30 years is a bit of a long-time to wait for the actual evidence (rather than the distraction of irrelevant application figures), so here are my thoughts:

    1. Graduates will be paying far more for their tuition than the actuial cost of their tuition, given the combined cost of tax on their higher graduate incomes and the extremely high level of tuition fees (compared to the rest of the Western world). With the increase in the proportion of students going to university, I agree that students need to partly fund their studies directly, in addition to the extra tax they pay through their lives. However, given that graduates already paid much more for their tuition under the previous system/cap + taxes (effectively subsidising non-graduates), then the new cap is far too high and punishes people far too much for actually putting themselves through university.

    Unfortunately, due to the enormous amount of disinformation from the coaltion, MSE, etc (who only look at monthly contributions rather than the aggregate taxd/tuition that graduates will now pay), many applying to university today aren’t aware of how marginal the improvement to their long-term financial positions is, eefectively meaning their hard-work and sacrifice will leave them with a pittance, especially those on middle graduate incomes: teachers, scientists, engineers, etc. A country that punishes such people does not have a bright future.

    2. Tuition fees are regressive above graduate middle-incomes. The aggregate payments decreases as a proportion of income (the definition of tax progressivity). Given the 80% reduction in the teaching budget, that was funded through mostly progressive taxation, the funding model has shifted from progressive to regressive for middle to higher incomes. This effectively means a tax-break for high-earning non-graduates and graduates. A graduate tax would at least be proportional, but tuition fees are regressive.

    3. The burden of payment has been shifted from the older generation (who received their education at the expense of their elders) to the current generation of graduates. There’s no escaping the fact that the most spoilt generation in history is telling youngsters to pay for something that they didn’t pay for themselves. The fees system is (another) method of passing the burden of payments on to future generations. Those riots were hardly surprising.

    4. The tuition fees system is an accounting trick. The loans are written as assets on the government’s balance sheet and a part of the defeicit disappears, magically. Like magic, it isn’t real; the burden gets shifted to the younger generations and to future taxpayers who will have to make good the massive write-downs in 30 years time. Baby-boomers have found a way of screwing their children’s children, years before they are born.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Feb '12 - 10:58am

    In response to Steve, Mark is not saying the current tuition fee system is a good thing. I don’t think it is, I don’t know what Mark thinks, but I know most Liberal Democrats don’t think it’s a good thing. It would not have been introduced had we been the major party in government. I think the coalion negotiators ought to have fought harder about this issue, given the way we had used it in the general election, but I accept I was not there at the negotiating table, it’s easy to carp from outside. The situation we faced in May 2010 was dire – we had many fewer MPs than the Conservatives and there was no other viable stable government (apart from grand coalition – but how would it have looked had we sat it out and insisted the other two get together and do that?). Anyone with any political sense should know that the ability of the junior coalition partner to push tihngs their way under those circumstances is very limited. Anyone who had really looked into this (which unfortunately counts out most UK politucal commentators) would know the idea that the third party in a no-majority Parliament is an all-powerful kingmaker – that being the basis of most criticism of the Liberal Democrats from sources other than the right wing of the Conservative Party since the coaltion was formed – is nonsense. You don’t even have to look at other countries to see that, just look at many examples in British local government. The reality is that even where third parties seem to be getting a lot from their situation, they don’t dictate the broad thurst. In the most notorious situations, the third party has a very stable strong minority support which cares about a few minority thing and little about the rest, so the third party works by extracting a few vanity projects of its own in return for going along with whatever else the party it coalesces with wants. The Liberal Democrats were not in a situation to play this game, the closes they tried was the AV referendum, which demonstrated very well that the Liberal Democrats are not the equivalent of the Ulster Unionists or the Israeli religious parties in terms of support patterns.

    What Mark is saying is that the system does not seem to have had as great an impact on applications as some supposed. That’s another issue from whether it’s the best way to fund universities.

    The fear was that in their urge to play political games and use the tuition fees system as a stick to beat the Liberal Democrats, the current opposition would actually damage potential students by giving a false impression about accessibility to university. I have read countless articles from Labour Party people and Labour-inclined commentators which have given the impression that the new tuition fees system completely blocks access to university for any but the rich, that give the impression that to get into university now you must have tens of thousands of pounds of your own money spare. It is a fact that this is not the case. That’s a different issue from the long term financial impact. Although if we are going to take about the long-term financial impact, we do need to factor in how any alternative would work. Labour Party people and Labour-inclined commentators have given the impression that the money to pay for universities would otherwise just fall from trees. If it were borrowed as state borrowing, it would have to be paid back by future generations, if it were taken from taxation an honest debate shoudl involbve just what that extra taxation would be. I’d be in favour of a massive increase in inheritance tax to pay for university education, but I have not read ONE Labour Party person or Labour-inclined commentator who has had the finanical or intellectual honesty to propose that or anything else as the alternative to “the money will fall off trees”.

    I welcome the two Eds’ statement that they cannot promise to reverse any of the cuts of the current government. That’s the sort of intellectual and financial honesty I need to see coming from Labour to give them credibility. All the time Labour’s attitude towards the Liberal Democrats was to throw abuse at us and act as if we had 100% control of the government so anything bad it did was our fault, we were stuck. It’s a strategy that might have worked, but it looks like the Eds’ saw it wasn’t working. Good. If we are to get rid of this wretched government (I mean the one we have now) we need a constructive attitude from Labour, so that alternative policies can be developed. If there is an alternative waiting in the wings, the Liberal Democrats can exert much more pressure on the Conservatives in government. If there is a Labour Party willing to accept that the Liberal Democrats are mostly decent people with whom it would be possible, we can go into the next election with an even-handed approach. That offers survival to the Liberal Democrats, but is also Labour’s best chance. They need the Liberal Democrats to play the old game of picking up sufficient left-inclined votes in seats that would otherwise be safe Conservative to make sure the Tories don’t win an outrght majority at the next election. The result of persuading half the Liberal Democrat electorate that the Liberal Democrats are evil people for whom you should never vote again has at local government level already hugely advanced the Conservative Party. If it’s Labour’s line at the next general election it will do the same nationally for the Conservative Party. Personally I’m too old for the strategy “let the Tories win a real majority in 2015, then let the people see what a REAL Tory government is like, then they’ll be flooding to the Labour Party in 2020”.

  • Why strip out the spike? The new system caused the spike, did it not?

  • Mark, sorry, I should have written in slightly more depth. Its obviously absurd when there is data going back decades to just compare the two data points which are last year and this year. What I meant was that both the data from this year and last year show how unpopular the new system is, and I’d give as much importance to the spike as to the dip, once birthrates were taken into account. Its correct to say that the the two data points don’t make a trend as such, rather they form an event (impending change in fees encouraged many who would otherwise have taken a year off) followed by a ripple (some who would have applied had started a year earlier than they might have done in normal circumstances.
    On the pessimistic side, as the size of the applications can change but the size of admissions is limited by capacity, if the fees were not deeply unpopular you’d expect to see the level of admissions boosted in this year back up to close to normal levels because many would have failed to get spaces the year before. It does rather look like you are not so much understanding the applications figures as spinning the figures.

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