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Charles Levy
Senior Economist
Charles  Levy

9.9% fall in undergraduate applications - time to panic?

Authors: Charles Levy Charles Levy

30 January 2012

Today’s figures from UCAS show that 42,038 fewer English applicants applied for UK undergraduate courses starting this year compared to last, a fall of 9.9%. At any time this would be cause for concern – we have consistently demonstrated that as our economy recovers and grows it will create an expanded demand for graduates. But, this year there is an extra worry since 2012 will be the first year that dramatically increased fees will apply for higher education.

It is too early to be sure, but there are a few good reasons not to worry about this headline:

  • Demand for higher education places is still likely to dramatically outstrip supply, despite the fall in applications; 
  • There are some hints in the data that many individuals chose to apply for a 2011 entry to avoid the fees. Last year saw a 20,000 increase in applicants aged 19-21, so a fall of 25,000 for this age band this year isn’t quite such a concern; 
  • UCAS analysis suggests that the sharpest fall in applicants came from more advantaged as opposed to disadvantaged groups. This doesn’t fit a story of poorer students deterred by rising costs; there might even be some sort of ‘gap year’ effect here; 
  • The drop seems to be concentrated in mature students. But, as Mary Curnock Cook from UCAS commented today we shouldn’t yet panic about this since the fall is "in the context of some very substantial increases in recent cycles". 

So, while we shouldn’t worry too much about the headline, individual institutions are facing dramatic swings in applications. While we will need to look to see institution-specific factors to better understand these, some figures stand out. For example, Roehampton and Goldsmiths saw applications for degree courses fall 27.5% and 22% respectively. Many smaller institutions have seen much larger swings.

It looks like we should be far more concerned about the impact of recent higher education policy on individual institutions than on demand for places. Our universities are at the heart of our innovation ecosystem and play very significant roles in many local economies. We should be very concerned if we are losing otherwise healthy institutions, or putting at risk the diversity of our higher education sector. 

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

anne mcglashan

30 Jan 2012 5:44PM

UCAS should have moved to post Alevel result placement years ago. Their failure to do this is to the detriment of Ms Curnock Cook, and she should think of resigning rather than posting comments containing the word 'panic'.Do they think their services will not be required if this much fairer system is implemented? This step change in applications was predicted as soon as tuition fees increased. More advantaged students are not necessarily private school students, perhaps more clarity in the definition of advantage is required by an institution(UCAS) which can no longer be trusted to work in a fair manner.
So Charles I would not come to any conclusions based on UCAS data, more on data gleaned from higher education institutions, which at the moment is not complete and transparent.