2012 was a rather shocking year for students in Britain, as the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government gave the green light for universities to raise their annual tuition fees up to £9,000. In reaction to these negative developments, student applications in England plummeted by a whopping 40,000 the same year. The biggest concern among the public was the fear that this immense increase in fees would lead to thousands of people not being able to afford to take on the debt of going to university, and would thus be frozen out of higher education completely.
However, the opposite happened: after the initial shock, university applications bounced back quickly. In fact, UCAS reports that up until its application deadline on the 15th of January 2015, a total of 592,290 young people applied for a spot at one of Britain’s universities for the academic year 2015/16, 2% more than the previous year. Originally, participating in higher education was not as common in the UK as it is now. Historical data from the House of Commons shows that over the past 65 years, the participation rate has exploded, with 3.4% in 1950, 8.4% in 1970, and 19.3% in 1990, up to 33% in 2000. Considering today’s dramatic difference to the situation in the past, it appears that studying at university has become somewhat of an aspiration or even a type of status symbol that families are willing to pay for.
studying at university has become somewhat of an aspiration
Contrary to the concerns about poorer students not being able to afford going to university, the number of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds is now higher than it would have been if the fees were lower. Whilst the gap between rich and poor applicants is slowly narrowing, a strong correlation between affluence and university entrance remains. Wealthier youngsters are still almost two and a half times more likely to apply to universities, and seven times more likely to get a place in “high tariff” universities, such as for example institutions from the prestigious Russell Group.
Nevertheless it isn’t the richest, or the poorest applicants who are considered to be losing out due to the increased tuition fees. It is in fact the average middle income family who struggles to financially support its children’s university education, as it misses out on the extra support available for poor students. It is a commonly overlooked fact that the loans which are available to these students tend to be less than the students actual need for accommodation and food.
Over the years another remarkable change in university applications has occurred: the latest UCAS figures reveal that there is a widening gender gap amongst applicants for a higher education in Britain, with women being 36% more likely to apply for a university spot than men. Data also shows that up to this year’s UCAS deadline 342,350 young females applied for a course at university, 3% more than the previous year, while at the same time male applicants were over 92,000 less with only a 1% rise since January 2014. According to the Guardian, women nowadays make up the majority of students in two-thirds of all subject areas, particular in the field of medicine. Interestingly, men remain the dominant gender in most stem subjects such as engineering, science, technology and maths.
In general UCAS figures show that there are some subjects that experienced large increases in application numbers, such as Computer Sciences (+12%), Education (+10%), Social Studies (+9%) and Biological Studies (+9%). The subjects with the most severe drops include Sciences Combined with Social Sciences or Arts (-20%), Combined Arts (-13%), Combined Sciences (-11%) as well as Medicine and Dentistry (-10%).
It is important to note that according to the report by UCAS different universities and other higher education providers across the country are currently experiencing differing situations in terms of their applicants and general student numbers. Whilst some universities report enrolments dropping by more than 10-20%, a third of institutions have experienced growth of at least 10% since 2012 and 9% revealing a growth by more than a fifth.
This year British universities are permitted to recruit an additional 30,000 new students. For the government, this means that the regulation of tuition fees is going to be a key issue in the upcoming election later on this year. The Labour party for example announced that if elected, they are going to cut the current maximum tuition fees of £9,000 by £3,000. Although this idea is supported by a large proportion of the country, British universities claim that this would create a hole in their revenues worth £10billion over the next five years, worsening the situation for some institutions which are already seeing declines in their student number and revenues.
The topic of higher education and its surrounding regulation, be it tuition fees or the handling of the number of international student numbers, is promised to be a key topic for both politicians and the general public leading up to the General Election in May 2015 and beyond.