Who's up, who's down in the fight for applicants

The prospect of pounds 1,000 tuition fees appears not to be deterring many university applicants. But some institutions are suffering more than others in the struggle to recruit students. Lucy Hodges examines new data
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When the Government last year announced the end of free university tuition, the university world shuddered. Would this mean that students would shun higher education? Would some universities, particularly the financially weak and the less prestigious, be pushed to the wall?

We now know that the world did not end, and that students are still signing up for three years of lectures and partying before taking the big step into the real world. Latest figures - as of 13 February - show university applications down by only 2.9 per cent overall. These are, of course, applications, not places, but the figures do suggest some new trends.

The number of mature students, aged over 21, applying to university has fallen, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. And, following the collapse in the tiger economies of the Far East, overseas student applicants are also thinner on the ground. Furthermore, HND courses have taken a hit.

Some or all of these factors are thought to be contributing to the fall in applicants at two new universities - Plymouth (down 3,791 on this time last year) and Nottingham Trent (down 5,987) - though these universities also have their own stories to tell.

"It's not good," says Professor Leslie Ebdon, one of Plymouth's deputy vice-chancellors. "It means our ratio of applications to acceptances will fall from 8 to 1 to 7 to 1. That's not a disaster. We will almost certainly fill our places, but it's not the direction in which we want to be moving."

At the other end of the spectrum is a big surprise. Thames Valley, a new university spreadeagled between Ealing in west London, and Slough, which suffered adverse publicity last year when staff were ordered to pass students who had narrowly failed (an order later rescinded), has recorded a large increase in the number of applicants (up 2,940). Could it be a case of the old adage: any publicity is good publicity? Thames Valley's vice-chancellor, Mike Fitzgerald, thinks not. "It's been too hurtful for that," he says.

More to the point, Thames Valley has reorganised its programmes - engendering deep hostility from the lecturers' union, Natfhe - in a form that people want to study them, according to Fitzgerald. And it has received a huge increase in applications in certain areas - for example, media technology.

It is also presenting information about its courses in the UCAS handbook in a more digestible form. Whereas previously it listed courses over two pages, now it lists them over seven - showing the multitude of subjects you can combine with, say, accounting, or American studies. This may make it more enticing to students.

Another winner, Bath, an "old" university nestling in the countryside above Jane Austen's spa town, has also seen a big rise in demand for a new subject, sports science, which it believes accounts for more than half the 22 per cent rise in applicants.

"It's a popular subject, and we have new and first-class facilities and good coaches," says the vice-chancellor, David Vandelinde. "We're not only seeing more students applying to Bath, but we're also seeing increasingly good students. I think we're in a period of time with fees coming on line where there's some movement in the system."

It is early and difficult yet to detect firm trends. Vice-chancellors agree that the coming year is most unusual. Last year, for example, saw a rise in applicants as students rushed to sign up before fees were introduced, so the only way a number of institutions could go was down. There are few patterns in the data. New universities are doing no worse than the old, and there does not seem to be "a flight to quality" as predicted by many with the advent of tuition fees.

One discernible pattern is that applications to London institutions have mostly been holding up - surprising, in view of the capital's cost of living. Colleges of London University, such as Royal Holloway, Queen Mary and Westfield and the LSE, are up. Moreover, applications to new universities - London Guildhall, and the University of East London - are up too.

Another discernible pattern is a desire by students to avoid out-of-the- way places without a hinterland. With one or two exceptions, institutions off the beaten track, such as those in Exeter, East Anglia, the Celtic fringes, Northern Ireland, some of Wales and much of Scotland, are haemorrhaging in the same way as did independent boarding schools perched on clifftops and buffeted by gales.

In Scotland, special factors may be affecting demand. David Roberts, chief executive of the Higher Education Information Services Trust, believes government plans for tuition fees and the ending of grants may be more of an issue in Scotland because of the tradition of four-year degrees. Students will have to find a year's more money than their English, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues.

One reason for the fall in demand for isolated spots may be that students are staying at home to save money. It has been clear for some years that students have been choosing to remain close to home by attending a university in their region. Whether more of them are deciding now to hole up with their parents to save money on food, washing and rent is not known. UCAS will be looking into this phenomenon, says Tony Higgins, its chief executive.

If it is true that students are increasingly opting for universities in their home towns, that could help to explain why universities such as Plymouth and Exeter have taken such hits. They traditionally recruit from outside their region, because they have had to.

Lancaster, however, is one university that bucks the trend. Its numbers are substantially up, yet it stands in splendid isolation in the north of England, close to the Lake District and the sea. Like Bath, it enjoys a good reputation, gaining prestige from impressive grades in the research assessment exercise.

Professor John Tarrant, vice-chancellor of Huddersfield, another new university whose student applications are up, has studied the figures and thinks the more sought-after universities this year are those that are small or medium-sized. The very big, situated in cities such as Leeds and Manchester, including most of the big civics, have tended to lose applicants.

Huddersfield falls into the former category; the university is in a large town, so students have the advantages that come with an urban centre, but it is not overwhelmingly large. Ditto the university. In addition, Huddersfield has benefited from the work it has put into recruiting students from local schools and colleges, says Tarrant.

Like other new universities, it is flexible in course design. "We can put on new courses with new methods to respond quickly to market changes," he says. It also has a strong vocational emphasis, with a high proportion of students on sandwich courses working in job placements organised by the university.

Most of the big civics - indeed all the big civics in the North and the Midlands, including Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Nottingham - have lost applicants this year. That has led to speculation that students may be avoiding universities belonging to the Russell group (named after the hotel in Bloomsbury, London, where its vice-chancellors meet). Members of the Russell group are thought to have pushed for fees to be charged in the first place, which led to the idea being adopted by the vice-chancellors' committee. They are therefore thought to have been responsible, more than other vice-chancellors, for the pressure on the last government over fees, for setting up the Dearing committee and for the eventual announcement that, yes, tuition fees would be charged. Moreover, Russell group universities have been behind the idea that top- up fees over and above the flat-rate fee should be allowed.

Most observers of higher education, however, regard this interpretation as fanciful, presupposing a much higher level of public knowledge about the intricacies of higher education policy than in fact exists.

Newcastle does not see this as a trend but as a hiccup. "The main thing is, we're getting students of the calibre we require," says Christopher Harris, director of communications. He is confident that Newcastle will be able to turn many of its applications into firm places. That may not be the case with some less prestigious institutions, whose applications may be made up of a large number of fifth and sixth choices (students have a wish list of six universities), which vanish when students are accepted by their first- or second-choice institution.

Universities that have lost applicants this year have their own stories to tell. The one that has done least well is Buckingham, Britain's only private university, boasting Baroness Thatcher as its chancellor. Buckingham attributes its problems to the collapse in the overseas student market. Despite fees of just under pounds 10,000 for degree courses lasting two years, its UK student numbers have held up, it says. Buckingham believes that tuition fees may well help it in the long run. As fees become the norm - and if some universities begin to charge extra - Buckingham will lose its distinctiveness.

Plymouth says that 13 per cent of its numbers have disappeared, partly because applications to their partner institution, Cornwall College in Redruth, are now being counted separately. In addition, Plymouth reckons it has lost perhaps one in five of the mature students it used to attract.

Nottingham Trent says it has been affected by the decision to increase the standard of entry. This year the A-level points score has been raised to 12, meaning that applicants have to achieve two Cs at A-level, or a B and a D, to gain entry. "We are not worried about what is happening. We're still ranked in the top 10 in the UK for the total number of applicants," says a spokeswoman. "Applications are not over yet."