Publication of the first round of UCAS figures brings news of an overall fall of 11.9% in home applications to university compared with this time last year. That won’t come as a great surprise to many doomsayers in the wake of the Government’s carve-up of higher education (a process which was of course commenced by the previous lot – in case you thought my political biases were showing).
But whether it will all be doom and gloom is not something we should be predicting at this stage – it is simply far too soon to tell. The only deadline that has passed is for Oxbridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science – and these only show 0.8% decline. None of these are ‘ordinary’ parts of the HE ‘market’ so we should equally not read too much into that either. Given the high demand for all these areas, one might reasonably expect only a small decline here – so that in itself may not say much about what will happen in the rest of the sector. At this stage, I think, there are only trends to watch.
First, there are big variations in how the (apparent) decline is affecting different disciplines: -26% in business studies, and -17% in architecture, for example, whereas law is only -5%. Such variations could make hitting targets and managing student numbers a lot more ineresting for universities, particularly in the context of the new recruitment game that has been created by splitting the ‘market’ into high achievers (AAB+)/core and margin.
Secondly, the decline in home student numbers so far has been offset by a rise in international applications. Is this a sign of increased recruitment activity by UK universities as a safety net, and/or is it symptomatic of students moving away from the US and Australian markets, both of which have had their troubles? We shall have to see.
Thirdly, rather more troubling is the noted decline in mature student numbers. Overall, applications from students aged 19 or over has fallen by 19.2 per cent. Applications by those aged 30 to 39 have fallen by 22.7% and by those aged 25 to 29 by 21.4%. These age groups do quite a lot of the sector’s work for diversity and social mobility – the participation rate of black 17-30 year olds, for example, exceeds that of white students; for 17-19 year olds it is below the proportion of whites.
Underneath this, of course, is the troubling concern that any significant decline in undergraduate student numbers is going to impact the sector’s continuing poor performance on social mobility (as opposed to diversity – we are pretty good at middle class diversity now in the UK, its really upping the mobility of the working class we still have problems with). In their background papers for the White Paper, BIS advisors made the point very clearly that social mobility would be assisted by an increase in student numbers, which, of course, the Government has felt obliged to ignore (and yet still claim its reforms will be good for social mobility).
To what extent students will be put off by the spectre of massively increased debt is moot, and an issue we have been currently exploring as part of the LETR literature review. Research on earlier changes to the fee regime have not uncovered the fear of debt as having a significant or systemic effect on participation, but we are moving into a different country now, with the average level of indebtedness predicted to more than double (and averages in this area are notoriously unhelpful; I suspect – but can’t prove – that they disguise a broad range with quite a lot of polarisation towards the ends of that range.
In the US, law school applications for 2011 were running 12.5% down in January, levelliing up slightly to a 10% decline by September – the biggest drop in 1o years according to the Wall Street Journal, but that’s probably still not big enough to have too many Deans and Admissions Directors losing sleep.Would a 5% or 10% decline in applicants have a serious impact on UK law schools? The ratio of applications to places across the whole sector works out at roughly 1.5 to 1, so there is capacity to spare, though this, of course, disguises massive variations in the demand for places between institutions. A 10% drop may well be enough to make life very uncomfortable for some of the least popular
recruiting universities. The new funding regime, again adds to the complexity here. If their core numbers were to continue to decline through under-recruitment and/or re-allocation to the margin, and they failured to achieve successful bids for margin numbers, we could certainly see some schools seriously at risk in the next two to three years. But there are, as you can see, a number of variables at play.
Closure of any post-92 law school is not going to be good for the diversity of the legal education sector. Will a decline in student numbers impact diversity and social mobility in the legal profession? Worryingly, possibly not a lot. Most of the improvements in social mobility have been achieved by the post-92 sector, and such research as is available suggests that the cost of vocational training, combined with the recruitment practices of (seemingly) a significant part of the profession, still leave the majority of those students seriously disadvantaged in the marketplace. The 2012 changes will certainly not make a tough job any easier.