Education: Student applications fall, but officials keep on hoping

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Ministers believe that a late rush in applications for university places next year proves that they are beginning to win the argument over tuition fees. But Judith Judd, Education Editor, is not convinced they are right.

The Universities and Colleges Admission Service is expected to announce today that applications are down around 6 per cent - or just under 20,000 students - on this time last year.

The Government claims it had been expecting a bigger drop and that many of those applying this year simply abandoned plans to take a year out, to avoid pounds 1,000 tuition fees which will be charged from next September.

Energetic advertising by the Department for Education and Employment, and universities themselves, has reached significant extra numbers of potential students, it would appear. The advertisements have attempted to persuade sixth formers and others that despite the prospect of leaving university with bigger debts to repay - reflecting new student loans covering both tuition fees and living costs - a degree remains a good long-term investment.

Graduates earn higher salaries than those who have not gone to university, ministers say, and are therefore well placed to bear some of the cost of their education.

Today's figure represents applications to Ucas by its 15 December deadline for places next autumn.

Ministers can be expected to point out that in previous years, nearly a quarter of all places have been filled after the Ucas deadline, by direct applications to universities and colleges. But critics warn that the prospect of bigger graduate debt will deter students from poorer backgrounds from going to university in the first place.

They remain unconvinced by ministers' insistence that tuition fees are the only way to generate extra revenue for higher education, and create more places for just those students. The real acid test of the impact of fees will come in numbers applying to university from 1999 onwards.

This year, student leaders warn that the drop in applications, while relatively small overall, will conceal wide variations.

Student numbers at some colleges are likely to fall by as much as a fifth, with those hardest hit likely to be humanities and social sciences courses at newer universities. These could suffer serious loss of revenue if the drop-off in student numbers were sustained.

The Government says it has gone to great lengths to minimise the impact of fees, which will be means-tested. Students whose families earn less than pounds 23,000 before tax will be exempt, and full fees will only be paid by students whose parents earn pounds 35,000 or more. The Government has also stressed that parents will pay no more towards the cost of their children's education than they presently contribute towards means-tested maintenance grants.

Its advertising has pointed out that although graduates will leave university with bigger debts, they will pay them off on easier terms.