Political Promise

What the new UCAS figures say about the tuition fees rise

In Alexander Blakoe on October 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

The figures are out!  And they all point to one conclusion: the fact that the figures mean very little to anybody.  Alexander Blakoe takes a closer look at UCAS’s recent press release and the left-wing’s reaction.

Even though the vast majority of students have yet to send their applications off, the media have been quick to pounce on the statistics UCAS have fed them.
Many institutions have less than 5% of the applications they are expecting to have received by the January deadline, but it’s never too early for The Guardian to start spreading what is potentially ‘bad news’, conveniently ignoring the fact that the drops in England and Scotland are both by 12% (even though Scottish students will not have to pay tuition fees).  Once The Guardian had found out that only 52,321 applicants have applied from within the UK this year, compared to 59,413 this time last year, they decided that the rise in tuition fees was a bad idea.  As if we weren’t expecting demand to fall with a rise in prices.

Perhaps somebody should explain to The Guardian that nobody with a few brain cells is really that surprised by a drop in applications.  The point of the
reforms was not to maintain current student intake whilst indebting graduates more than before.  Although, from the comments on The Guardian’s website, it seems that very few readers understand – or want to understand – the system.  “That has always been the main plan, make university education unaffordable for the less well off and use them as cheap labour“, “education for them that can afford it”, “The unis are more interested in giving places to the rich, irrespective of where they are born, rather than trying to help academically gifted but financially struggling applicants”.

“Elitist”?  “Unaffordable”?  Yes university should be elitist – but elitist academically, not financially.  There is not a single Year 13 in the country who will be unable to afford university.  You have nothing to pay up-front: you are lent money by the government until you are able to pay it back.  If you are earning £20,000pa after university then you pay nothing back.  If you are earning £21,000pa after university then you pay nothing back.  If you are earning £22,000pa after university then you pay back £90 per year (9% of what you earn above £21k).  If you are earning £23,000pa then you pay back £180 per year.  It is indeed a massive financial burden to put yourself into ‘debt’ by £27,000 (sometimes more!), but if you do not believe that your degree is worth that much, why should the government pay for it?  And let’s face it, the repayment scheme is so generous that it is more like a fair tax than a debt.

I am currently a Year 13 student, and I have applied to universities.  I have, indeed, not been scared off by socialists.  In fact, with a little research I found that people from a poorer background (with a household income of less than £16k) are entitled to massive grants, bursaries, and scholarships.  First the government gives me money, and then universities give me money.  Oxford, for instance – the “most elitist university in the country” – gives me over £22,000 in help for living costs and tuition fees.  Not to mention the £12,000 the government is giving me.  Both are non-repayable.  Oxford and the government will also lend me more money, should I need it to survive at university.  The new system is fair and reasonable, and provides excellent education to those who have the capacity to learn, not the capacity to pay.

There will be reasons for a drop in the number of applicants, however.  According to my research, approximately 7% of applicants take a gap year; knowing that tuition fees were rising, I suspect that more than a few 2011 applicants will have put their projects on hold, meaning that there are more spaces available for 2012 applicants (this year’s).  Furthermore, some people may opt to study abroad, where it is cheaper.  Also, a number of people will be putting off the decision, not wishing to commit themselves to a £27k degree which they don’t want.  Finally, some people will have decided that their degree is not worth what they are paying for it.  All these reasons are positive: one reason is a natural avoidance of higher fees, one is an example of the free market at work, and two show that students are making more careful decisions now that they are faced with the true cost of a degree.  Anyway, every time fees rise, applicant numbers fall and then rise again rapidly.  In 2006, applications dropped by 4.5% before bouncing back up by 7.1% the following year.  In conclusion, we are expecting a fall in applications – but it will mean very little. And given that 95% of applications have yet to be sent off, the current figures certainly mean very little right now.

  1. The drop in responses correlates roughly with a drop in the birth rate from 18 years ago. Bugger all has happened.

  2. Extremely well written. I love reading articles with a statistical backing.

  3. I don’t think a lot of change was expected in the first place with the early applications, to be honest. Most of those results were probably from people applying for medicine, Oxford and Cambridge – the people least likely to be put off by cost…
    You’re right to say that a general fall in applications is expected and also that support is given to those from low incomes. The worry is whether people from lower income families have been deterred proportionally more than others by the idea of accruing so much debt (whether reasonably or unreasonably can be debated). Therefore, it’s even more definitely too early to say anything until statistics of that sort of nature come out.

    • I agree, Oxbridge/Medicine applicants are ‘the type’ of applicants who unlikely to be deterred by high tuition fees. One would expect university applicants to be bright enough to determine the value of their degree and to understand how the new system works. Those who do not realise that you do not have to pay upfront are unlikely to have the intelligence necessary to go to university in the first place! If you are from a lower-income family, you will be in the same situation as everybody else (or in a better situation, if we take into account grants/bursaries/etc,), after uni. So if your degree is worth the money you are paying for it, you have nothing to fear!

  4. The numbers that I would be more interested in, if they exist, are statistics of how many graduates are happy or regretful of their degree choice (and that they were on student loan). If there is an overwhelming or 50/50 amount of people saying they regretted their degree, thought it was a mistake or had no relevance to what they are doing now, I think that might lend weight behind the argument that universities should not be attended for purely experiencing the uni life.

    I think the seriousness of going to university was lost when potential applicants were offered a financial arrangement whereby their costs could be expensed onto someone else or expensed to nonexistent money (future earnings). The word toxic debt comes to mind. When we look at the numbers of youth unemployment and the continued intake of large amounts of students… it’s like another investment bank involved in hedge funds and mortgages on the brink of collapse.

  5. Michael: I agree that it would be good to see the statistics about the perceived relevance of degrees. I remember reading an article speculating that there was an education bubble in ‘The Economist’ a while ago, which I found interesting.

    However, I want to quickly disagree that the decreased ‘seriousness’ of going to university was /caused/ by people not directly having to pay for their degrees. If this was true, how would there be more people going to university now (with tuition fees) than there were a few decades ago when they had to pay nothing at all? It’s far more likely that the increase in the number of people going to university was a result of long-term changes in the rest of society, which in turn led to a loss of ‘seriousness’ as it became normalised and bec a sort of youthful experience. You could argue that the effect was exacerbated by the financial arrangement, though.

    Alexander: ‘Those who do not realise that you do not have to pay upfront are unlikely to have the intelligence necessary to go to university in the first place!’

    What I meant earlier is that not having to pay upfront does not solve everything – being in debt for decades is not an idea that everyone is equally comfortable with. Will those from lower income backgrounds (typically who are less used to debt, large sums of money and probably have less encouragement to go to university anyway) be put off by that huge (approx.) £65,000* figure proportionally much more than those from higher income backgrounds? I am not saying that this will necessarily be the case – the effect might be minimal or enough might have been done to mitigate it with bursaries and the like (btw: financial aid from Oxford, a rich and very selective university, is likely to be higher than that from most others) – but it’s one of the sorts of thing that we should be looking for.

    Again, I do agree strongly that it seems pretty pointless to analyse at the moment. Anyway – thanks for an interesting, well-written and well-researched article. =)

    *£36,000 tuition + 4 x (£3,700+£1,750+1,850): Estimated living costs given by the Oxford University site. Excludes interest.

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