Excuse me a second while I serve myself a nice slice of humble pie. It would appear my image of doom and gloom in the university world is not eternal. It would appear that, despite soaring fees and rising numbers of complaints amongst students, there are little pieces of good news that we can take out of university education at the moment.
University education has long been, to me, the last true stronghold of education in this country – that is, the only thing that the government can’t actually regulate in terms of the content. Whilst they seem to restrict who can and cannot go through disastrous finances, it would appear that once you actually get into university, you’re free, so to speak.
Of course, everything took a bit of a hit a few years ago when the government tripled the tuition fee maximum, cut scholarships and bursaries, and changed the rates of interest on repayments. Despite protests up and down the nation – some turning violent – and many politicians criticising the decision, the government pressed ahead with their plans and changed higher education for good – the changes took effect for the start of term in September 2012. Some say it was the day it died.
No-one thought it was ever likely to ever make a comeback – students would be consistently put off by the idea. Either society would be fragmented even more thanks to a more-highly educated, wealthy minority… or it would lead to dwindling numbers at university, causing employers to look elsewhere – to other qualifications – in order to fill their ranks. The value of the degree begins to fall.
UCAS has data pages which have recorded a great many things since 2008 – we can therefore see what was happening before, during and after the university policy changed.
- Year-on-year, the number of individual applications to universities had been rising quite nicely – from just under 2.2m in 2008 to 2.85m in 2011.
- The number of applicants rose nicely too – from 588,000 to 700,000 in the same time frame.
- Overall, acceptances, not surprisingly, went up too – 456,000 to 492,000.
If you look at the percentage of those who were accepted for each year, it tells a story of things getting tougher for students – the increase in successful applicants never kept pace with the increase in applicants going in. The success rate dropped nearly 7% across that time.
Then 2012 hit – quite literally.
Rather than increasing as they previously had, there were 7% less applicants – and 7.5% less individual applications. Interestingly, the acceptance rate increase by one percentage to 71.2% – universities obviously were keen to fill spaces.
With further changes to the National Scholarship Fund – for which you can find my thoughts here – along with increases in the cost of living not being met by the Student Loans Company, I imagined it would never fully sort itself out. The numbers would continue to drop.
However, the latest data from UCAS – from those starting in September 2013 – which landed on my desk the other day seemed to catch me off guard a bit. The results are as follows:
- Individual applications rose. Rather than falling, the figure stood at 2,711,870 – or an increase of 2.8%.
- The number of students applying to university rose from 653,637 to 677,375 – 3.6% higher than in 2012.
- The acceptances? 6.6% higher than the previous year to nearly half a million – 495,000 to be precise.
Well, this certainly caught me out. The number of both applications and applicants going into the system is nearly back to 2010 levels – and likely only a year or two off before they get to that all-important 2011 figure. The number of acceptances has never been higher, meanwhile.
It’s not like a particular gender suddenly got the urge to go or anything – in the applications, applicants and accepted applicants categories, the proportions of men and women going remained exactly the same between 2012 and 2013 – that’s a slight majority of women.
The Telegraph ran an article about it recently and put it down, in part, to foreign students – there were indeed a great deal more EU and non-EU students making the trip to our shores in the last academic year. Of course, I’m sure this will cause some controversy – reading some of the comments on the article about tuition fees not being collected and you get the idea – but I think student mobility from Europe and further afield is great – I wrote about Erasmus back in March, for instance.
All of this comes at a time when ministers are backing funding for 30,000 more undergraduate places at universities for UK and EU students – limits on the number of available places for universities will be abandoned altogether in 2015.
In many people’s eyes, this appears to confirm the government’s claims that the £9,000-a-year cost of studying isn’t putting people off. I will reluctantly agree with that – we’re almost back to where we were in 2011 – not bad considering many more people went that year than expected before the imminent rise of the fees. It would seem that students across the nation are beginning to realise that university is still an option for them.
Of course, it is easy to argue that – you could also say that students are understanding that there aren’t too many alternatives. In November 2013, the Office for National Statistics looked at graduates in the economy and concluded that they were more likely to be unemployed as a result of their degree. Those with ‘only’ A Levels to their name are, on average, not expected to earn the current national average full-time wage of £26,500 per year.
According to the averages, a graduate will reach a peak of earnings somewhere in their late-thirties earning about £35,000 a year. Those with A Levels will peak at 34 at around £22,000a year… and those with GCSEs will earn around £19,000 a year when they are 32. Therefore, to be even average on the national pay scale, you need to be a graduate.
So it seems that students are waking up to the reality of an uncertain market and tough climate. The result is a surprising rise in university applications.
Ding! The humble pie is warmed through now. Gotta go.