Fees detering future applicants

Martin Ford looks at the fall in university applicant numbers

Take a moment to look back at your time at University. Think of all the experiences you have gained; the new people you have met, the new interests you have discovered. Consider the independence you’ve developed with the severing of the apron-strings. Remember the nights out and the good times had. I’ve not even mentioned the degree you’re supposed to be studying for!

Figures recently revealed by UCAS show a 3.4% fall in applications to study at English universities this year, the first in a previously steady year-on-year rise. Despite the efforts of universities and ministers to downplay the role of top-up fees in this reversal, the rise in applications to Scottish and Welsh institutions suggests otherwise.

Students emerging from university with £15,000 of debt are now commonplace. Graduates in 2004 saw a rise in their average debt of 12% compared to the previous year. This can only become more acute in coming years, and potential undergraduates are only too aware of this dire situation.

The extra cost incurred in taking a four year course has caused concern among some university departments – particularly those in the scientific and linguistic fields – that their popularity could wane. Similarly, part-time students, who are not eligible for bursaries, are at a distinct disadvantage.

Research undertaken by the Institute of Education has shown that universities are likely to become more regionalised, as the financial advantages of attending a local university are brought into sharp focus.

Coalition 2010, an initiative involving the partnership of the NUS with teaching unions, has already been established to oppose any plans to remove the current £3,000 cap on top-up fees when it comes under review in 2008. It remains to be seen whether this campaign will achieve any real success.

The Government’s target to have 50% of 18-to-30 year-olds in higher education by 2010 has suffered a significant and not unexpected blow with the publication of these statistics. The incompatibility of their legislation with their targets had been laid bare. Many of the UK’s economic rivals can boast sending 60 percent or more of their young people to university; this country is currently below the international average.

This fact, quite apart from the arguments in favour of providing more young minds with the opportunities a university education can offer, indicates a grave need for the Government to achieve its ambitious goal. Currently it lies in peril.

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