Gill Wyness: Response to January 2013 UCAS figures

30 January 2013

CentreForum's Gill Wyness gives her take on the latest UCAS figures which reveal a welcome rise in university applications...

The 3.5 per cent increase in applications from UK, EU and overseas students to UK universities in 2013 is promising, but does not represent a full recovery, since applications by the same measure were down by over 7% in 2012. Indeed, the total number of applicants in 2013 is still lower than levels seen in 2010.

However, if we look specifically at applications from English students (who were most affected by the 2012 tuition fees hike), the 1 percentage point increase in applications for 2013 entry among 18 year olds is almost a full recovery from the dip in 2012. Application rates for English 18 year olds applying to UK universities went from 35 per cent in 2011 to 33.8 per cent in 2012, and are now almost fully recovered at 34.8 per cent. While the recovery is a good sign, there was an upward trend in the years prior to fees increase, and it is too early to say whether this trend will resume or whether there will now be stagnation.

The increase in applications from disadvantaged 18 year olds is particularly encouraging. Application rates went from 18.6 per in 2011 to 18.4 per cent in 2012 to 19.5 per cent in 2013. So it is quite possible that tuition fees haven't caused any damage to application rates, and the problem of debt aversion among lower income groups may not be as severe as some people thought. With that in mind, there doesn't seem to be any great rationale to make significant further changes like decreasing fees.

Nevertheless, it is important to stress that

: applications were so severely down last year that we would expect them to recover this year

: we don't know if application rates will flatline henceforth

: it could be the continuing high levels of youth unemployment that is driving demand from disadvantaged applicants this year

: while numbers appear to have recovered for 18 and 19 year olds, the situation looks less promising for mature students - which is worrying.

In sum: there are some positives to be drawn from today's UCAS figures, but it is too early to make solid assertions about the success (or failure) of the new regime.

Gill Wyness is a research associate of CentreForum. Click here to read about our work on higher education access and finance.