Party over: Student life is serious business

As official figures reveal that fees of £9,000 have created a record slump in applications, Richard Garner discovers how economic reality is already transforming universities

It used to be about daytime TV, being carried home from bad nightclubs, and halls of residence awash with half-eaten pot noodles and stolen traffic cones, but for the new breed of university student weighed down with the pressures of inflated tuition fees, it's all about business. Today final student application figures are being released by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) and are expected to show record falls in student numbers.

Earlier fears of a 15 to 20 per cent decline are unlikely to be confirmed, but vice-chancellors still predict an overall drop of about 6 per cent (with a larger fall among UK applicants) – up to 30,000 down on last year.

However, it is as much the change in culture in reaction to the tuition fees hike as the drop in numbers which is significant.

Students are shunning the traditional three-year campus course and all its quirks in order to ensure they gain qualifications more quickly, more conveniently, and if necessary while living at home.

London's Birkbeck University, for example, has seen a huge influx of school leavers opting for its "night school" degree course. This consists of three hours' teaching a night, four days a week, crucially leaving students free to take a day job to finance their studies.

This year has seen overall applications for courses in a range of subjects including English, geography, history, law and the psychological sciences soar by 153 per cent to 1,142.

The biggest rise has been among 17 to 20-year-olds – where applications have more than tripled from 219 to 739.

For 19-year-old Tasneem Yahya, the decision to study psychology at night school was a "no brainer". "I live in Central London – only a 15 to 20-minute walk away from the university," she said. "I can save a lot of money."

Similar motives have led to a growth in popularity for two-year degrees – advocated by the Universities Minister, David Willetts, and his predecessor, Lord Mandelson – whereby students forgo their long summer breaks to cut down on the cost of a three-year course.

Then there are a raft of schemes being introduced by employers whereby school leavers get a job and their fees paid while they study. KPMG took on 90 students under this scheme last year, offering them £20,000 a year as long as they worked for the accounting firm while they were not at university.

It has proved so successful that the numbers have doubled this year and many of the major graduate recruiters have followed suit. Those recruited will study for accountancy degrees at Durham or Exeter.

Add to the mix the fact that applications to the Open University are increasing, with the latest figures showing a 4 per cent increase to 260,000. Again the rise is fastest among 18 and 19-year-olds where the numbers have shot up by 30 per cent to 1,611.

Today we will see just how much impact the new fees regime has had on student applications as UCAS publishes details of the numbers that have applied by what is commonly termed the final deadline – January 15. In actual fact you can apply afterwards – it is just that you cannot guarantee being treated equally to those who have met the deadline.

In addition to a drop in student numbers, expect a shift in the pattern of courses students are applying for. Research among school leavers shows they are considering their options more seriously this year – "hard work" has replaced "hard partying" as their motto.

Arts and humanities courses such as creative art and design seem to be the main victims (down 14.6 per cent). The biggest sufferer, however, is non-European languages – which includes Mandarin and Japanese, both considered essential to the UK's future competitiveness.

On the up or holding their own are medicine, law and business studies because of their capacity to lead to well-paid employment.

University applications down 8.7 per cent

Look and learn: New university tribes

THE NIGHT OWL: Niall Quilligan

Niall had already made the decision that he wanted to live in London before opting for Birkbeck College's "night school" degree programme. It gave the 19-year-old from Cheshire the chance to earn while he learns, taking a job to help him finance his way through his course. "You're able to work 9 until 5 if you want to, while other students are studying," he says. "I worked in market research for a bit of cash."

The course in psychology involves him turning up Monday to Thursday between 6pm and 8.30pm for lectures. "It is quite flexible provided you put the main core of learning in between 6pm and 8.30pm," he said. Another student on the Birkbeck night course, Tasneem Yahya, said it was an easy decision because of the money she saved by living at home.

"I'm also able to mix with people of all ages on this course which is what I will have to do when I go out to work," she says. "That wouldn't be the same if I went away to university."

THE DISTANCE LEARNER: Kelly Cutsforth

An Open University degree allowed Kelly to gain work experience while completing her law degree.

The 24-year-old from Hull had already bought her own home when she opted to go on the course soon after completing her A-levels.

"Rather than go to university and come out with a huge debt after three years, I thought it would be good to have a fee earner while I studied," she says. "I wouldn't have been able to afford to go to university and I gained practical skills as well during the course – it is quite difficult to get a job at a solicitor's office."

THE HIGH-EARNER: Joshua Bellamy

Joshua is on the pioneering KPMG scheme. It earns him a £20,000 annual salary while the firm pays his tuition fees for an accountancy degree at Durham University. For the first three years, he spends six to eight weeks on campus and the remainder at work. In the fourth year he completes his course by spending the whole time studying.

The 18-year-old, a former pupil at Holland Park School in west London, says: "It means you're earning a wage while your studying. It did play a large part in my decision that – rather than ending up in debt – I would be earning."

THE CRASH-COURSE KID: Chris Doe

Chose a two-year degree because "I didn't want to spend the summer holiday sitting in bed until 10 o'clock".

It also helped him save on his living costs while he was studying. Critics claim those who opt to study this way deny themselves valuable work experience that will help them get a job – because they will not have the time to fit it in. Chris, 22, studied marketing and media communications at Buckingham University. "I think it gives you something unique to offer [employers]," he says. "Not many people had heard of two-year degrees so I think it proved to them I was prepared to work hard."

University applications down 8.7 per cent

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