Tuition fees are hitting student numbers, admits Les Ebdon

Failure to properly communicate the increase in university tuition fees to £9,000 a year has already caused a large drop in student numbers and may also affect applications this year, Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has told Civil Service World.

By Joshua.Chambers

05 Dec 2012

Speaking in an interview, the man charged with increasing university applications from disadvantaged students warned that figures expected next week from UCAS, the university admissions body, will show a fall in the number of students beginning university in 2012. “I think we will find when the numbers come out that probably 20 or 30,000 fewer students have started this year than the year before,” he said. “We’re all watching the applications anxiously to see whether that’s a one year effect or an ongoing effect.”

When asked what obstacles there are to increasing applications from disadvantaged groups, Ebdon said that fear of tuition fees “appears to be an obstacle, particularly for mature students who are much more difficult to reach than school leavers. They seem to have dropped off.” The same applies to part-time students, he said: “The numbers have fallen.”

In Ebdon’s view, “the English system is one of the most progressive in the world, it encourages participation in higher education, but we have a real problem with communicating it. There are large areas where we haven’t communicated that it isn’t an up-front fee; areas where we haven’t communicated that you don’t have to start paying back until you’re earning above £21,000; areas where people don’t know that the rate of repayment is only nine per cent of salary.”

Ebdon’s comments come as UCAS figures released last week show that applications to start in 2013 are also down, currently by eight per cent compared to last year. So far, 145,000 candidates have applied for places, while 158,000 had done so at this point last year.

UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock said that “experience tells us that changes at this point in the cycle are a poor guide to final demand,” suggesting that students may be taking longer to decide whether to apply but ultimately could still do so by the end of the year.

A spokesperson for the business department said: “The government’s reforms have made the university system fairer and more progressive. Most new students will not pay up-front, there will be more financial support for those from poorer families, and everyone will make lower loan repayments than they do now once they are in well-paid jobs.”

Ebdon also criticised the Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills committee, which refused to endorse his appointment earlier this year. “If Parliament wants the best and most appropriate people to apply for the jobs which are now scrutinised by select committees, then I think they need to park the politics outside the room and look at candidates on their merit,” he said.

Update, January 2013:

The number of students starting university in 2012 was, in fact, down by a record 54,000, according to UCAS.

Meanwhile, figures released by UCAS on 3 January 2013 indicate that university applications for September 2013 are down by a further 6.5 per cent in England compared to last year. While last year, 245,882 people applied to university, only 229,932 applied in 2013.

Read the full interview with Ebdon

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