The higher education applicant data released by UCAS yesterday will come as something of a relief to ministers who may have been bracing themselves for much worse.
The figures show an overall drop of 8.7 per cent among UK-only applicants – including a 9.9 per cent drop in England. Although significant, the figures are considerably less dramatic than some predicted, particularly given the spike in last year’s applications prompted by the announcement of the tripling of tuition fees from 2012-13.
The disproportionate drop in applications from mature applicants is, however, a serious concern and is one that ministers would do well not to ignore. It should act as a warning sign for ministers who have put widening participation and social mobility at the heart of their reform agenda in higher education and who, in their higher education White Paper, set out a vision for a more responsive, diverse and student-centred higher education sector.
Of course, as universities minister David Willetts has argued, it may be that mature students are opting for more flexible options, looking to study part-time or by distance learning – as part-time applications do not go through UCAS (and, indeed, as applications stay open to the end of June and mature students often apply later), we will have to wait to see the full picture.
But the drop in full-time undergraduate applications from mature applicants is substantial enough to start alarm bells ringing. In particular, it raises questions about the extent to which increased fees are acting as a deterrent to mature applicants who are typically more debt and risk averse and who often have to face juggling higher study with a range of other family and work commitments. No doubt, these inhibiting factors will have been compounded by recession and an uncertain labour market.
These, briefly, are some of the headline figures: While there has been a small drop in applications from 18 year olds of 2.6 per cent, broadly in line with demographic trends, among those aged over 21 there has been a more significant slump of 11 per cent. Applications from 23-year-olds are down 13.5 per cent, while for 24-year-olds the figure is 10.7 per cent. Applications from those aged 25 to 29 are down11.8 per cent, from those aged 30 to 39 by 9.9 per cent and from those 40 and over by 10.5 per cent.
Clearly, further analysis of these figures will be necessary, particularly around the impact on different socio-economic groups – and, of course, as a picture of all mature applications to HE it is incomplete – but it is clear that more needs to be done to improve our understanding of mature learners’ attitudes to loans, their distinct and diverse support issues, as well as to improve communication of the new loans system to mature learners. We are still some way from achieving a system of higher education that meets the realities of life for a diverse student body.
A drop in mature applicants would seriously dent the government’s ambitions for social mobility and economic renewal and sends an unfortunate message with regard to the emerging shape of the reformed HE sector and its responsiveness to the needs of learners who missed out on higher education the first time around.
Participation by mature adults could be further constrained by the introduction of further education loans for people aged 24 and above from 2013 and the ‘unconstrained recruitment’ of students achieving AAB grade or above at A-level, which will make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at a leading university and is likely to lead to a funding squeeze at new universities – the institutions which have contributed the most to efforts to widen participation on HE.
NIACE has long argued that higher education should not be viewed in isolation but as part of a wider framework of lifelong learning. Putting mature students at the centre of thinking about higher education will produce a more responsive, flexible and student-focused sector, that should improve access overall for students from non-traditional backgrounds. As Nick Pearce, Director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, has argued, the greatest steps forward in higher education have come when mature students have taken precedence in policy.
Ministers cannot afford to be complacent about the recruitment of mature students. In particular, the government needs to think hard about how it communicates its message to potential mature students, with regard not only to the information it makes available, but also to how it is used and what support is available to adults – who often have no access to either the formal or informal networks of support younger and more advantaged students take for granted – to make sense of it all.