University applications have plummeted for the second year running, prompting fears that young people are being deterred by higher tuition fees from continuing their education.
The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) up to 19 November reveal an eight per cent drop in applications to 145,009 compared with last year.
This follows an even larger slump last year – when candidates faced tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year for the first time – when overall numbers fell from 182,000 to 158,000. The figures also show a slight drop in applications from international students outside the UK (who often have to pay full-cost fees) of 0.8 per cent to 15,863 and 0.9 per cent from European Union students to 8,952.
A slump in applications was forecast last year as thousands of would-be students gave up gap years to start university courses in 2011 to avoid paying higher fees when they were introduced this September.
University vice-chancellors and UCAS stressed it was "early days" to read too much into the figures. But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university think tank million+, warned that "alarm bells should be ringing in Government". She said: "It would be a travesty if students and their families stopped seeing university for what it is – an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not just to improve career and employment prospects, but for inspiring lifelong interests and experiences."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "It is rather concerning that the number of people applying to university appears to be continuing to fall. The bottom line is that hiking fees up to £9,000 a year will put people off. Erecting punitive financial barriers is not the way to encourage the best and brightest to get on."
However, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, said: "Experience tells us that changes at this point in the cycle are a poor guide to final demand. For example, in the 2012 cycle, the decrease in applications in November was much greater than the final picture in January – possibly because applicants were making more considered decisions about their higher education choices after the tuition fee changes in 2012."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "It is too early in this year's application cycle to drawn any firm conclusions."