Student choices: Prophets of doom were all so wrong

Pessimists predicted a huge fall in college applications - but it just isn't happening
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How often it happens that predictions and forecasts develop a life of their own and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

There can hardly be anybody in the country, other than those in Government, who believe that the introduction of tuition fees and the re-structuring of student financial support arrangements will not affect demand for higher education. It now seems to be accepted that this is the case. The Independent's survey on the attitudes of students and parents (pages 6-9) reflects this.

At UCAS we have watched the applicant profile unfurl since the applications cycle began in September of last year. We had to warn, in mid-October, that those worried about a 12 per cent fall in applications should not come to hasty judgements.

At first sight, it seems that our caution was correct and that the Government has not got it as wrong as most people forecast. The latest figures available from UCAS show that, so far, 384,317 individuals have applied for entry to university and college in 1998, as compared with 395,177 at the same time last year - a fall of 2.7 per cent. Applications are still coming in.

Even more encouraging is that applications from school and college leavers in the UK are now showing a slight but perceptible increase of 0.8 per cent. The down side is that the reduction in demand, such as it is, is almost entirely among potential mature students. The Government's commitment to Lifelong learning, which I believe is shared by the vast majority in the educational world, must not be run off the rails by this blip. It beholds us now to take as much time and effort to explain the new financial arrangements to mature students as UCAS, with others, has done for school and college leavers.

Again, to defy the pessimists, UCAS has noted that the fall in applications from among the less well-off is smaller than the average fall and less than most of the other socio-economic groups. Even so there are too few applicants coming from the poorer families and we must encourage wider participation.

We now hold our breath and wait for the summer, when examination results come out, and we hope to translate applicants into students. There is still a fear that when the chips are down, and the full economic consequences of becoming a student in 1998 are known, some will back off. But that is sheer speculation and can be as wide of the mark as the speculation about demand which we have been witnessing over the last few months.