Early indications suggest that the tripling of tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 is putting students off university, a study has found. Evidence shows that the fee increase, to be introduced next month, is reducing the number of applications to English universities, according to the Independent Commission on Fees.
Applicant numbers in England are down 8.8% compared with two years ago, while applications from 18 and 19-year-olds are down by around 7% over the same period. The commission, established in January to monitor the impact of the fee hike, compared UCAS application figures in 2010, before the new payments regime was announced, with those of 2012, the first year that students will be directly affected.
The total number of people applying to English universities in 2010 was 421,448 and has fallen to 384,170 this year: a drop of 8.8% or around 37,000 fewer students. Among 18 and 19-year-old applicants, there was a fall from 298,155 in 2010 to 276,629 in 2012: a drop of 7.2%. It suggests that this drop cannot be wholly explained by a reduction in the number of young people in the UK.
Applicant numbers are also down compared with 2011 but this was after students were aware that fees were rising in 2012.
The report, the first that the commission has published, shows that the fall in applicant numbers in England has not been replicated in other parts of the UK. Both Scotland and Wales have seen a rise (1% and 0.3% respectively) while Northern Ireland saw 0.8% fewer applicants. Commission chairman Will Hutton said that although it is too early to draw firm conclusions, there is “initial evidence” that higher fees will have an impact on applicants’ behaviour.
The report concludes: “The decline in English applicants from the 2010 level was 8.8%, as compared to a nearly-constant level from the other home nations across this period. This may indicate a link between the level of tuition fees and the numbers of applicants.
“The fall in population of 18 and 19-year-olds is a significant factor in explaining some of the overall decline in applications, but this is relatively constant across the UK, and cannot account for the difference in application drop-offs between the four home countries.”
Students from Scotland attending Scottish universities do not pay fees, while the Welsh Assembly has said it will pay fees above £3,465 for Welsh students attending any UK institution. Fees for students from Northern Ireland are also capped at £3,465. The commission did not find evidence of fewer applications by teenagers from poorer homes.
Mr Hutton said: “Although it is too early to draw any firm conclusions, this study provides initial evidence that increased fees have an impact on application behaviour. There is a clear drop in application numbers from English students when compared to their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“On a positive note, we are pleased to see that at this stage there has been no relative drop-off in applicants from less advantaged neighbourhoods. We will continue to monitor a range of indicators as the fee increases work their way through the system.”
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said it has always believed it would be a “tragedy” if a young person is put off higher education because of financial concerns.
“The applications cycle for the first group of students facing a new, hideously complicated and unstable funding system, scarce opportunity and high unemployment remains incomplete,” he said.
“We don’t yet know whether or where those who have applied will study.”
Nearly three-fifths of young people say the fees increase has influenced their decision about whether to apply to a university in the UK, according to a survey of around 1,000 teenagers. The poll, published by the Commission alongside its report, reveals that just under three-quarters of 15 to 17-year-olds in England say they are likely or fairly likely to apply to university.
More than half of the GCSE-age students questioned said the main factor that would influence which university they apply to is the institution’s reputation. More than a third (38%) said the overall cost of studying at a particular university would be a factor in their choice and one in four (26%) said they would take tuition fees into account.
The survey also revealed the main reasons why young people choose not to go to university.
The five most frequently cited reasons were that they were put off by tuition fees; they were put off by the overall cost of higher education in the UK; because they would rather get a job; they did not think their exam results would be good enough; and because their family would be unable to support them.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Young people not applying for university have few other opportunities with levels of high unemployment and the difficulty securing other forms of education or training.
“We need to be investing in our young people, not directing them towards a lengthy dole queue.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the university think-tank million+, said it was “disappointing” that the commission had not examined applications among older students.
“Applications for university courses starting in the autumn are still open and it is too early to predict the impact of the new fees regime,” she said.
“However, one in three undergraduates start university when they are over 21 and it is disappointing that the Fees Commission has focused on younger students when mature student applications have decreased much more significantly.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “The proportion of English school leavers applying to university is the second highest on record and it is still not too late to apply. Last year 30,000 students applied after this point.”
“However, even with a small reduction in applications, this will still be a competitive year like any other as people continue to understand that university remains a good long term investment in their future.”