Universities fear the big boom is over

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Has demand for higher education reached a plateau? Have sixth-formers started to turn away from studies that will saddle them with debts? Or are there simply no more of them with the right qualifications?

Such questions began to circle in the air last week as news emerged of the first downturn in applications for places at university since the Government launched its expansion of higher education 10 years ago.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) said nearly 350, 000 people had applied for places by January 12, some 5,000 (or 1.5 per cent) down on the figure for the same time last year. This has happened despite an increase in the number of 18-year-olds.

"I'm sure poverty is a factor," Jess Enderby of UCAS said. "The continuing pressure on students' funding, perhaps also joined with a slight improvement in the economy, has started to make potential applicants pause for thought. "

In the same week, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) reported that the number of students dropping out of courses had risen by 10 per cent over the last year. Nearly two-thirds of the 54,000 who abandoned their studies early had not failed exams or assessments but had dropped out for other reasons.

Forty per cent of the students who dropped out were mature students, who now account for a third of full-time undergraduates. They are especially affected by hardship, with a disproportionately high level of dependence on special funds for the most needy students, say the vice-chancellors.

Local education authorities are still failing to do their bit to help students start the year solvent. A third of all students did not receive their vital first grant cheque on time at the start of the 1994-95 academic year, says the CVCP. This was no improvement on the position in 1993-94.

Although student hardship has been blamed for both the drop in applications and the rise in dropping out, the vice-chancellors' figures also show a sharp rise - by 20 per cent, to 21,000 - in the number of students leaving their studies early after failing academic tests.

This appears to support criticisms made last week by Sir John Mason, retiring chancellor of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

He compared the Government's decision to expand higher education before resolving problems in schools to "adding an extra storey to a house with crumbling foundations". And he criticised the Government for shifting too quickly from a highly selective system of higher education to one of "mass production".

Many of the institutions newly designated as universities did not have "the intellectual or financial resources to make their student intakes, courses and degrees comparable" with established universities, he said.

Students who already find the financial going rough are likely to find it gets rougher over the next few years as the switch from grants to loans accelerates.

Figures produced by the vice-chancellors' committee show that, by the year 2,000, students finishing a three-year degree who have taken out the maximum available loan will owe nearly Pounds 6,000.

The committee wants to see loans reformed to make the prospect of repayment less daunting, possibly by linking repayments to the tax system.

At present, graduates have to start repayments in the April after they graduate, unless their income is less than Pounds 15,200 a year, and usually repay in fixed instalments over five years.

At present, students only need grants and loans to cover their maintenance costs: tuition is free. However, the vice-chancellors are to hold an emergency meeting next week to consider their funding crisis as a result of cuts in the recent Budget. One possibility is that universities might decide to start charging tuition fees.

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