University fees 'have not affected' student demand

The introduction of top-up fees has had no effect on demand for student places, according to research published today
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The Independent Online

Figures for recruitment this year show a 9 per cent rise in the number of students seeking to go to university this autumn – bringing the percentage of 17-year-olds opting to go to university to 47.1 per cent.

However, they also show there is little change in the profile of the university population – despite millions of pounds being spent by ministers on attempts to widen participation amongst disadvantaged groups.

In addition, universities were spending less than expected on bursaries to help the less well-off , largely because some students did not realise they were entitled to them.

The findings of the research, conducted for Universities UK – the body which represents vice-chancellors – are bound to lead to pressure for an increase in the top-up fee level from its present rate of £3,000 when ministers review the higher education funding next year.

Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College, London, has called for universities to be able to charge full-cost fees of £15,000 a year for some of their most popular courses. Several members of the Russell Group, which represents the 20 top higher education research institutions in the UK, want the cap lifted – and universities to be free to charge what they want.

However, most academics believe the Government will limit any increase to around £5,000 a year – which is seen as the maximum fee that would be politically acceptable.

Today's report concludes: "There is nothing in the available data that indicates that the introduction of variable fees in England has yet had any lasting impact on the level or pattern of demand for full-time undergraduate education."

Figures have risen for the past two years after a "blip" in 2004-05 when they fell by 4 per cent – largely as a result of students forgoing gap years to escape top-up fees. A breakdown of applications shows a "modest increase" in applicants of black African origin and a reduced Asian intake.

"The only significant increase (and it is only minor) is an increase in the percentage coming from semi-routine occupations (for example, shop assistants, hairdressers, bus drivers, cooks)," it adds. The percentage from the lowest socio-economic group has risen by just 0.4 percentage points to 5.9 per cent in the past four years.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned against using the report to boast that the introduction of top-up fees had been a success. "Whilst it is encouraging that student numbers have not decreased in our universities, it is extremely worrying that there has been no change in the number of students from the very backgrounds the Government is spending considerable sums of money on persuading to apply," she said. "We remain unconvinced that asking students to pay more for a university education is the best way to encourage those from poorer backgrounds to apply." But Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "It's encouraging to see from this report that demand for higher education remains solid."

*This year's A-level results will show an increase in the number of candidates taking maths. The results, out on Thursday, will show a rise of between 5 and 10 per cent in those taking maths and 15 per cent in further maths. The rise follows changes to the syllabus after it was claimed it was too difficult and was deterring potential candidates.