Friday, 3 February 2012

University numbers: don't say we didn't tell you so

So the outcome of the great fees debacle of 2010 had been a marked fall in the number of applicants to English universities in 2012 - something unprecedented, certainly on this scale, for the past thirty years. Messrs Willetts and Cable (above) have presided over a marked retreat for organised education in this country, and they have managed to turn many thousands of would-be students off the idea. Without saving all that much money for the taxpayer, if any, by the way, but that's another story.

Look beyond the raw numbers and a rather different story does emerge. Demographic factors play a huge role here, as the number of 18 and 19-year olds is going to shrink markedly between now and 2019. All the more reason, you would have thought, to make sure that universities have a relatively stable income stream, but there you are. And the number of applicationos from poorer postcodes has fallen rather less than those from more pricey neighbourhoods - perhaps reflecting just how good and how persistent you have to be to press ahead with Higher Education designs from the former background. What's a few extra thousand pounds on top of our society's constant dissuasion anyway? Some universities have managed to do quite well - even putting on numbers across a sector as diverse as Durham and Oxford Brookes.

Still, the biggest decline is among mature attendees - exactly that group the Coalition promised to help when it extended Student Loan Company finance to older would-be students. What a pity. That was just about the only progressive part of the package - now undermined by the ham-fisted and poorly thought-through way the policy was implemented and presented. As well as funded.

England's universities will survive. Up to a fifth of students applying weren't getting in anywhere anyway, because of the Government's arbitrary and ill-fitting limit on total numbers. Take ten per cent of applicants away, and you still have ten per cent not getting in. So our universities will still be full - it's just that some of them, for instance Goldsmiths in London, have just lost many thousands of their students and many millions of pounds of revenue.

One can only say again, with a weary sigh: what a pity.

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