Student applicants undeterred by top-up fees

The government has welcomed figures that appear to show students have not been deterred by the introduction of top-up tuition fees.

UCAS figures show applications are up six per cent compared to this time last year, suggesting that next September will not see a fall in the number of new university students.

The latest round of UCAS figures shows 325,000 students applied for higher education courses between January and March this year, up 34,000 on the same period last year. This brings the total number of applicants so far this year to 446,765, compared to 424,560 at this time last year.

Higher education minister Bill Rammell said he was “delighted” applications are continuing to “roll in”.

He continued: “These highest ever figures continue to show that tuition fees are not putting students off applying to university as many predicted.

“The critics of the new system are being proved emphatically wrong.”

A breakdown of the figures shows a “significant increase” in applications to study strategic subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, foreign languages, which had previously been in decline.

There was also a rise in the number of foreign students from both the EU and overseas. Such applicants are attractive to universities as they pay higher tuition fees.

The National Union of Students (NUS) welcomed signs that more students are recognising the value of higher education. However, it warned more details were needed before the government could claim top-up fees are not deterring students.

NUS president Gemma Turnely called for information on the socio-economic background of each university student body. “This detail will help protect against a divisive, damaging and inequitable two-tier system,” she claimed.

Ms Turnely continued: “In the face of the government’s campaign to broaden access to universities, elite public schools have actually increased the number of pupils they send to Oxbridge over the last five years, whilst ethnic minority students are twice as likely to attend modern universities than traditional universities.”

The government and NUS are divided on participation rates among students from the bottom four socio-economic groups.

Mr Rammell said it was “encouraging” to see the proportion of applicants rise to 32.4 per cent from 31.9 per cent last year, but Ms Turnely said this increase was “disappointing”.

The government insisted the figure was “good news” and said it was committed to widening participation further, pointing to the improved student finance package.

The NUS said widening participation must be made a priority and concluded: “With many of the key questions still unanswered, these statistics provide a shaky foundation on which to base arguments for further marketisation of the higher education system.”