UCAS Statistics and Looking Cautiously Ahead

UCAS has released statistics for the number of university applicants so far this year. The numbers for the November comparison point show a 4% drop in UK applicants compared to last year. Applicant totals so far are closer to 2010 figures.

However, the 2010 figures for UK applicants increased by 340% between the November comparison point and the January deadline. Compare that with a 300% increase in 2011, 250% in 2012, and 300% in 2013. As we are regularly reminded, information provided in the interim should not suggest any specific course of events. Early figures of this type rarely provide an idea of the final outcome.

We can't see the future, but that doesn't mean we should wait until it's happened.

We can’t see the future, but that doesn’t mean we should wait until it’s happened.

Chief executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, explained that direct comparisons cannot be made as this year’s figures have been taken on a different date. Dandridge also recognised that applicants are increasingly using the whole time available up to the January deadline, rather than applying straight away.

So while nothing is set in stone, these statistics offer us a guide to possible scenarios that could play out.

Is this year’s drop partially down to potential applicants (and their parents, carers, etc.) giving greater consideration to their decisions from the outset? And will their caution result in a big surge toward the end or a clear dip?

Much of this depends not so much on tuition fee worries, but on viable and comparable alternatives to higher education. I don’t feel we have yet reached a point where large numbers of school leavers are realistically considering many different routes. New ideas are brewing, but university is still a big driver and still seen by many as ‘what you do’. How long will this attitude last?

The 2011 White Paper said it was time for students to vote with their feet:

We want a diverse, competitive system that can offer different types of higher education so that students can choose freely between a wide range of providers.” – p.47, Students at the Heart of the System, 2011.

It assumes that people will choose the best university for them. But what if people instead choose no university at all?

The thing about feet is that there’s more than one way to vote with them.

[Update: Nick Entwistle pointed out that the 4% drop is roughly in line with population figures for 18 year olds. As numbers in that demographic are currently on a decline, that makes sense. It’s another important factor to consider and I forgot to mention that, so thanks Nick!]