Reflections on the bad news in this week’s UCAS figures

So the long-awaited UCAS figures are finally out and have been met with a somewhat muted response from the media, as was commented on in the THE http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418893&c=1. Applications from prospective UK students are down by 8.7% on 2011 and, given that 2011 was a bumper year before increases in tuition fees, some commentators are interpreting these figures as not too bad. Charles Levy’s blog post for the Work Foundation suggests that we should not be too worried about the headline figures although he does concede that there may be cause for concern about the fate of individual institutions http://www.theworkfoundation.com/blog/659/99-fall-in-undergraduate-applications-time-to-panic. Meanwhile, the Guardian focused on the relatively small drop in the numbers of applications from school leavers http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jan/30/uk-university-applications-drop-ucas. However, in a period of mass unemployment, would it be usual to expect a drop in the applications from this group?

Tuition fees are clearly a key factor in the 9.9% drop in applicants from England when compared with the relatively small decreases in other UK countries not affected by these increases (Scotland -1.5%, Wales -1.9% and Northern Ireland -4.4%). The suggestion that there has been a more significant decline in applications from affluent rather than from deprived prospective students appears to have been viewed as comforting. This was queried by the Guardian’s Reality Check http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/jan/31/higher-education-tuition-fees?intcmp=239. Apparently, UCAS have only provided deprivation data for school leavers – there has been a big drop in applications from mature students and these very often come from non-traditional backgrounds. So the jury is out on the impact of increased fees on deprived students.

For linguists the statistics make depressing reading. European languages are down by 11.2% while non-European languages suffered the biggest drop, a whacking great 21.5% fall. This has been viewed with dismay by Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy who proposes that it is bad for the UK’s global standing http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=418901#.TyqZjIeTy0g.twitter. Like many others, he feels that languages are suffering because they require an extra year of study (i.e. the year abroad). In the current climate it is not difficult to see why a four-year degree might be considered unattractive. On a slightly more positive note, applications for languages tend to have a relatively good conversion rate to acceptances. It will be interesting to see whether data is forthcoming on whether languages students are heading increasingly for the low-fees regimes of the European Union. Let’s hope they are out there somewhere.

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