Time for a u-turn on universities

Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on new research that shows the dire impact on the Coalition's higher education policies

The University Admissions Services (UCAS) has published a report on applications for 2012 for full-time courses, adjusted for demographic fluctuations in populations. Its main findings include a 5% fall in the number of 18 year olds from England applying for university, approximately 15,000 young people. Applications meanwhile, from older age groups in England are also 15-20% down on 2011, with 15,000 fewer applicants aged 19 and a further 15,000 fewer aged 20 and over.

Most courses applied to by English applicants have tuition fees at or near the maximum £9,000 (before any fee waivers or other support) while fees charged elsewhere in the UK remain unchanged. Also remaining broadly unchanged is the rate of 18 years olds in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland applying for study in their own country. These various facts are clearly related.

Perhaps what all of this illustrates most is the impact of the decision of the Tory-led Coalition to treble tuition fees from September 2012 on young people’s aspirations. UCAS claim their figures show higher fees making little significant difference to application patterns, but the fact that UK applications are down by 8.9% makes it pretty clear that the increased debt burden is putting people of all ages off investing their future.

There is growing concern that the changes being pushed through by the government are wrecking one of the best higher education systems in the world. We have nearly a tenth of the top 100 global universities in the UK, second only to the US, and the sector is our 7th biggest export industry as well as a force for economic progress across our country. It is hard to believe therefore, that the Coalition considers the right way to build on this is to cut investment in research, teaching and science funding, curtail overseas student visas and make university three times more expensive for students.

There is little Labour can do to at present to stop many of these change, not least because Ministers have failed to bring forward the Higher Education Bill this year that was foreshadowed by the 2011 White Paper. We said at the time it was thin and uninspiring, and the BIS department have clearly been unable to change to that. The shame is that our higher education sector could continue to be a significant source of the UK’s future influence in the world – the “soft-power” that comes through making others familiar with our culture and our values. And of course, every overseas student studying here is paying fees and contributing to UK plc.

If we want an economy based on high value, long-term wealth creation and a more cohesive society, we must make the most of the talents of everyone. Extending opportunity is both a social goal and an economic imperative. That is why the changes to student finance are so damaging, jeopardising progress made on access and risking collateral damage to local economies where universities help boost to demand.

In many ways, the changes to higher education were the original case study in shambolic policy making and execution. It revealed Ministers misplaced priorities and unnecessary, unfair and unworkable proposals. This government has shown a degree of carelessness with a sector which is a proud part of our national heritage and essential to our future.

It is time for another u-turn.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Labour’s Shadow Higher Education Minister in the Lords

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