The real story behind the fall in application numbers

by jguiver on 31/01/2012

Yesterday Twitter was alive with the ‘UK university applications down’ headline; articles from The Guardian, BBC News and the Times Higher Education detailing the news story were being pinged back and forth across the ‘Twitterverse’.  Essentially, applications from UK students are down 8.7% on this time last year. 

It certainly makes for a great headline, one that goes hand-in-hand with the rise in tuition fees that are set to affect students starting university this September.  But if we pick apart the stats and take a closer look at the history, we might find it’s not as dramatic a drop as it seems.

This time last year media outlets were reporting that the number of applications from UK students was up, and many were saying it was because fewer students were deferring university to go on a gap year or take time out to work, choosing instead to enrol immediately in order to avoid the 2012 higher tuition fees.  So if last year’s numbers were unusually inflated, perhaps it’s not useful to compare them to this year’s. 

Take a look at the application numbers from 2009 and compare those to this year’s.   According to the director general of the Russell Group Wendy Piatt, “Demand for higher education is not only strong – it’s actually rising over the long term. This year 540,073 prospective students have applied, which is 16% more than the 464,167 who applied just three years ago in 2009.”  This means that numbers are actually up, ie. more UK students are applying to university than ever before. 

Not only that, demographics are working against application numbers.  Universities UK’s Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge has been quoted as saying, “While the overall number of applicants has decreased compared with the same point last year, the dip is far less dramatic than many were initially predicting. And if we look at the number of 18-year-old applicants from the UK, this has dropped by only 3.6 per cent at a time when the overall 18-year-old population is in decline.”

It’s irrefutable that fewer UK students applied to UK universities compared to this time last year.  But by looking more closely at the stats, we see beyond the headlines.  No matter how you look at it, over 540,000 students have applied to university already, and it’s only January.  By most accounts, the rise in tuition fees has not dampened students’ appetite for going to university.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Elspeth Jones January 31, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Thanks for the post on this. There’s also a big issue with some subject areas eg Arts and Humanities and especially languages. Applications for European languages are down 11.2% and for non-European languages 21.5%. The government continues to pursue the notion that education is purely for employability. The contribution of language learning to the development of students as global citizens means that we ‘internationalists’ should be concerned when applications for languages fall in this way.


jguiver January 31, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Thanks, Elspeth.

You are absolutely spot on with that comment. I think language learning is central to the development of students as global citizens. It isn’t just a language they are learning, but an entirely different way of thinking, interacting, negotiating, communicating, perspective – all of which contribute to being a global citizen.


Andrew Fisher January 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm

I’ve published a couple of posts on this

Whilst the picture for 18-year olds is of little change, the picture for mature students shows real and significant drops, and the figure for men (already underrepresented) shows significant falls. There’s no sense in which the application numbers are a disaster, but there are some real issues.

It is also worth noting that Overseas applications via UCAS are up (although many Overseas students are PG obviously), which counts as unexpected good news in my book.
Andrew Fisher recently posted..More thoughts on UCAS


jguiver January 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Hi Andrew

Good points. The news articles covered the mature student and male student numbers fairly comprehensively, so that’s why I didn’t mention them in my post (I try to keep my posts pithy!).

I had noticed overseas apps were up too, which is great news. Although, as you said, many will be PG. But still…it’s positive.

Thanks for reading, as always!


Andrew Fisher January 31, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Pithy is good. I wish I could do the same.
Andrew Fisher recently posted..More thoughts on UCAS


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