The two charts above – from the report here – are some of the most encouraging charts of recent times in public policy. The first chart shows the application rates to UK universities for the most disadvantaged 18 year olds. That rise is very significant – applications among the poorest students have almost doubled in England and Scotland over the period, and sizeable increases in Wales and N Ireland. And whilst there are dips in occasional years – most notably in 2011 with the first year of introduction of higher tuition fees – the trend is unmistakeable. Tuition fees did not put off students in 2004, and the near trebling of fees has not done so in 2011. Despite tuition fees, university has – officially – never been more popular amongst the poorest 18 year olds.
The second chart is the same data for the most advantaged students. This shows a small rise in England since 2004, with the other home nations staying mostly flat.
So what can we take from this data? Three observations and a couple of questions:
- A comparison between the two charts knocks on the head the argument that poorer young people are going to university because of lack of jobs. Apart from the fact that the first chart shows a consistent year on year increase – including in boom times in the economy, where graduates and non graduates would not struggle to find work – a labour driven rise in university entry over the past couple of years might be expected to apply more or less evenly across the cohort of 18 year olds, and this has not happened.
- It is heartening to see students – particularly the poorest students – understand the truth behind what remains a reasonably generous financial system. Despite all the rhetoric and misinformation, students are making rational decisions about the importance of gaining a degree. As I’ve written before, the Coalition – including the Liberal Democrats – should feel proud of most elements of their reform
- There is still, however, some way to go for poorer students. Even accounting for prior attainment, Russell Group universities still have far fewer poorer students than might be expected. And poorer students, who are more likely to have lower grades, are more likely to drop out – students who achieve at least AAB are half as likely drop out as those with CCC.
- Moreover, even if application rates are high, could they be higher still? Are universities and government making the best use of what is called the Widening Participation budgets, which between them total over £1 billion this year?
- What explains the differentia application rates between the Home Nations? The fact that English application increases at least match Scottish application increases over the period of strongly divergent fees policy suggests that the expensive commitments made by the Scottish Government to abolish tuition fees – a commitment that will not be broken until “rocks melt in the sun” – are perhaps questionable. But does more hide underneath that headline figure? Similarly, to what extent are the high Northern Irish application rates a result of them still having grammar schools?