Although there are still opportunities for students to find a place through clearing, the main application deadline has now passed and the majority of applicants have made their choices.
So in a year where so much has changed, what can we say at this point about demand for higher education in 2012?
We know that the total number of applicants to institutions in the UK decreased by 7.7% compared to the same point in June 2011.
Impact by age
For applicants based in the UK, where the main impact of funding reforms will be felt, the overall decrease was 8.9%. However, the figures varied considerably depending on applicants’ ages. There were 8% fewer applicants under the age of 21 and 11.5% fewer mature applicants (defined as 21 years of age or over).
For a good indication of the impact of reforms, we can look at trends for school leavers. They account for just under 45% of all UK applicants and demonstrate high levels of participation compared to other age groups. Crucially, they have not had the opportunity to access higher education under previous systems, so this is their first shot. In 2012 the decrease for them is much less than other groups – just 3.7% (UK applicants).
Do these figures tell the whole story?
The figures show a mixed picture: a definite decline in applicants but considerable variation across age groups. But how useful are they in determining the reform’s true impact on demand in 2012?
They tell part of the story. However one key factor to note is that they only show changes in the total level of applicants and do not account for changes in population over the same period.
The simple reporting of change in application numbers at the same point in the previous year similarly fails to place changes in the context of longer-term trends.
Recent evidence published by UCAS addresses these issues by looking at demand in the form of application rates over the last 8 years.
Application rates for 18-year-olds have varied considerably over the last 8 years, but the general trend across the UK is an increase in demand since 2004. For example, England’s application rate for 18 year olds has increased from 27% in 2004 to 34% in 2012.
For Scotland and Wales there is very little change in the application rate in 2012, with a continuation of the trend from 2009. In England the application rate decreased by 1 percentage point in 2012. This is equivalent to 7,000 fewer applicants in 2012 compared to 2011, or roughly 15,000 fewer applicants compared to what would be expected if the recent trend of increasing application rates had continued into 2012.
Impact on mature students
While the impact on school leavers seems to attract the most attention, despite being far less dramatic than some were predicting, there have been some indications that demand from mature students is dropping. The rate of decline in application rates for mature students in England is above that seen for school leavers and those seen in other countries in the UK. For instance, Scotland and Wales show little change in demand from mature students.
It is difficult at this stage to fully understand what the impact may be, especially as mature students tend to be far more diverse both in their behaviour and previous experiences of higher education compared to school leavers. It should also be noted that UCAS figures do not account for changes in demand for part-time provision, which is the main method by which mature students access higher education.
Impact on applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds
One of the main concerns regarding the reforms was that disadvantaged students would be deterred from going to university due to fee increases.
The POLAR (Participation in Local Areas) classification is a common measure used to define applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. It groups individuals by local area of residence, ranked according to the level of participation in higher education (Q1 are areas with low levels of participation and Q5 with high levels). This correlates closely with other indicators such as household income and proportion of children from low-income households.
The UCAS report shows that changes in application rate in England for those from disadvantaged areas (Q1), has not fallen to any greater extent than those from other areas. Although differences can be seen in 2012, when longer term trends are taken into account, there is very little difference in application rate by each group.
Although it is still early to make a definitive assessment on the impact of reforms, this useful analysis by UCAS does demonstrate that the impact on demand, particularly amongst school leavers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is not as dramatic as predicted.
This year there has been a preoccupation with a drop in applications. Given this, many people will be surprised to learn that there will still be more applicants than places in 2012. So in a year of change, we can be certain about one thing: for the moment, demand for higher education remains strong.