Record drop in university applications spells more problems for the UK economy, Vice Chancellor warns

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The Government needs to take urgent action to address a record decline in UK university intakes that will damage the UK’s economic recovery and blight the long-term career prospects of thousands of young people, a university vice chancellor warned today.

Record numbers of well qualified prospective students will miss out on a university education hit by a double whammy of reduced places at English universities and the sharp rise in tuition fees, says Professor David Green, an economist and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Worcester.

Professor Green was commenting on the latest figures from UCAS published today, which show a 8.7 per cent fall in applications from UK students aiming for a university place this September, and a drop of nearly 10 per cent in applications from students in England.

The drop in applications from students in the UK is the biggest ever in a single year. This contrasts with a healthy 13.7 per cent rise in applications from non-EU overseas students, whose average fees have increased by the rate of inflation. Professor Green argues that the negative impact of the near trebling of tuition fees for UK and EU students is clear. The only area of study where UK applications are up is in subjects allied to medicine such as nursing (up 2.1 per cent), where no fees are charged.

Professor Green predicts that unless the government takes action the number of applications will continue to decline compared with last year right up until July for the rest of the UCAS cycle, dropping overall by around 10 per cent to 630,000 from 700,000 in 2011.

Despite this, there is still an undersupply of university places to meet demand. Professor Green forecasts that this year well over 125,000 applicants will be unsuccessful in securing a university place and that many of these will be well qualified.

Coupled with record youth unemployment levels, the situation still cries out for the Government to allow universities to recruit more students, Professor Green believes. Instead, the Government announced on January 25 that places for September 2012 would be cut by 15,000. This cut is on top of the reduction in nursing places which already totals a reduction of over 2,500, with London the latest to announce a cut of 500 nursing places for 2012.

Overall, tens of thousands of prospective UK students – including many mature ones – have now “disappeared from higher education”, Professor Green says. “Unfortunately, they are not going into productive work, but onto Jobseekers Allowance. Universities are to be fined by £3,800 for each student they recruit above their control number in 2012 (£73.07 per week).”

As Jobseekers allowance for the Under 25s is £53.45, and unsuccessful UK university applicants are going straight on the dole, Professor Green argues that for just £19.60 a week the government could secure thousands more university places.

“The young people upon whom the country’s future depends need opportunities to work and to study. Youth unemployment is at a record high, yet the number of university places is being cut across the board, and in nursing in particular where demand is very high and where our graduates achieve 100 per cent employment.”

“By forcing English universities to charge much higher fees and at the same time cutting the number of places the Government is denying talented young people the opportunity to realise their potential. The tragedy is that for many of them the only alternative will be the dole queue,” he said.

Despite the overall gloom some universities like Worcester, which have put greater emphasis on preparing students for the jobs market and developed a strong earn-as-you learn programme to meet the needs of today’s students, are bucking the national trend. At Worcester, total UK applications have fallen by just 17 on a total of nearly 11,000, whilst applications to study computing are up by more than 15 per cent.