The latest figures show an increase - not a decrease - in the number of applications from 18-to-21-year-olds, according to Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). He will tell the "Student Choices" conference today that statistics as of March 20 this year show a 0.8 per cent rise in applications from the traditional student age group - up from 271,524 last year to 273,616 this year. Overall, however, applications are still down by 2.7 per cent, because the number of mature student applicants - over 21s - has fallen.
Professor Frank Gould, vice-chancellor of the University of East London, says: "It is very good news indeed, better than I had expected. Figures for applications from 18-to-21-year-olds may be holding up partly because that proportion of the population is increasing. And it may also be that the Labour government was right; people are not being put off higher education by the new charges."
Whatever the reasons, the figures will give the Government some comfort. They also vindicate the position taken by the vice-chancellors' committee, which pushed for tuition fees as a way of finding more money to fund the battered university system.
But there is even more cheering news. The statistics show that students from the poorest socio-economic groups are not being seriously deterred by the new charges. "The fall in applications from the lower social groups is almost the smallest of all, and far less than the average fall for each group," says Mr Higgins.
Vice-chancellors of new universities, which draw more heavily than old universities from socio-economic groups 4 and 5 - the have-nots, the unemployed and others - will have cause to whoop for joy. Dr Geoffrey Copland, vice- chancellor of the University of Westminster and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities (the informal grouping of new universities) says that the national figures bear out the experience of his university. Applications from 18-to-21-year-olds are holding up, he says. "We held an open day for our business school last week and were swamped by people coming in from schools and colleges."
All of which is good news for universities and good news for students. The worst fears of the Government's critics - that students, especially those from poorer families, will decide not to go to university because of the prospect of paying off loans for the rest of their lives - have not been borne out. Though whether prospective students will throw up their hands in horror closer to the time, when it comes to filling in forms and promising to pay, is not known.
Essex's vice-chancellor, Professor Ivor Crewe, is not particularly sanguine. "It's one thing for students to apply to university and to hold an offer, but turning up to register on 1 October is another," he says. "I believe that when students holding offers have to face the prospect of contracting substantial debt, there will be a last-minute falling away. Some will decide to defer entry for a year to earn money to reduce the loan that they will have to take out and to pay for the tuition fee, where they're not getting parental support for it."
Moreover, Professor Crewe believes that an increased number of students will drop out in the first term. That's because they will vote with their feet if they are disappointed with the university, or are struggling academically. Instead of paying the second instalment of the tuition fee, they will do a bunk, particularly in a buoyant economy where there is plenty of work on offer.
Whatever applicants do, ministers cannot take satisfaction from all the statistics. The details on mature students do not look good: applications from students aged 21 to 25 are down by 12.3 per cent, and those from people aged 25 and over are down by 15.8 per cent. One explanation may be that the number of mature students who missed out on higher education when they were younger, when fewer people went to university, is simply drying up. But another is that they have special reasons for being deterred by the new funding system.
Mature students have traditionally been more heavily dependent on grants than school leavers, who often get support from their families. Most have to give up work to enter higher education. For them the grant has been a lifeline. From this autumn they will have to pay tuition fees, and from autumn 1999 the grant will have gone completely.
So, these people will have to take out a loan and pay it back - but without the confidence that their salaries will necessarily go up in leaps and bounds, like those of young graduate high-flyers. And the typical mature student will have other repayments to worry about - for example, a mortgage. So much for lifelong learning.
"If I were the Government, I would be a little alarmed by the drop-off in mature students," says David Robertson, professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University.
What is puzzling is why so many prospective students - almost two-thirds of those surveyed in The Independent's poll (see our Student Choices supplement) - say that they may be put off higher education by the new financial arrangements, yet in practice they are signing up. Most experts see it as the difference between rhetoric and reality. Students are against the new charges, so they say they may be deterred from applying to university. But when it comes to the crunch, they make a rational choice that is based on self- interest.
"Higher education is a very good investment," says Roly Cockman, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "The job prospects for graduates are so much better than non-graduates, and their progression once they have jobs is so much better, so there are material reasons for getting a degree."
How will the face of higher education change under the new financial regime? Everyone believes that it will produce more discerning students who will look more critically at what they are getting for their money: whether their lecturers are conscientious and intelligible, whether their accommodation is comfortable, and whether their degree will lead to work. "Students are going to see themselves more as customers, and will demand value for money - good facilities, good equipment and proper teaching," says Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. "Universities have recognised that we're moving into a new era."
Most experts believe that students in this new era will tend to stay close to home to save money. That could lead to big changes for some of the older universities, according to Professor Robertson. Those that may have to change are middle-ranking institutions such as Hull, Reading, Leicester and Liverpool which do not make it into the research elite and which may, as a result, cease to draw on a national market for students.
They may end up having to reposition themselves as local institutions, which could mean much more competition between, say, Liverpool University and Liverpool John Moores.
Universities in the north of England are especially vulnerable. In the north there is a number of universities competing for students in a relatively small local market. Traditionally there has been a net transfer of students from the South-east to the north. But if southern students decide to stay put and enrol for their local universities in order to live at home and save money, northern universities could find themselves in trouble.
"Universities may think they have been fairly astute at positioning themselves in the market-place in the past," says Professor Robertson. "But they're going to have to look at their product range."
A piece of research that will help - sponsored by Ucas, the vice-chancellors' committee and the Higher Education Funding Council - is about to begin at Sussex's Institute for Employment Studies. Sixth-formers will be asked about their choices after school, and why they are choosing one university as opposed to another. Such research has not yet been done in this country, though it is common in America.
John Brennan, director of further education development at the Association of Colleges, thinks that students will opt for courses most directly useful to them in securing a job - computer studies rather than classics. And universities will respond by attending more to the key skills that employers say are lacking in graduates at present: numeracy, IT, teamwork and ability to communicate. Certainly Ucas figures show subjects such as marketing (up 18 per cent), computer science (up 13 per cent), design studies (up 10 per cent) and sports science (up 6 per cent) to be increasing in popularity this year.
Finally, many observers wonder whether the Government can really hold the tuition fee down to a flat pounds 1,000 a year. Professor Robertson believes the standard fee will disappear in five to 10 years' time, despite the legislation, because it will prove impossible to buck the market. Institutions that offer superior education will want to raise their fees to maintain quality, and there will always be people ready to pay the price. "The law will have to be repealed, or left to lie and rot on the statute books," he says.
For more information about today's conference, call Neil Stewart Associates (0171-222 1280).
Student applications at a glance
Total applications down 2.7%
18-21 age group up 0.8%
21-25 age group down 12.3%
25s and over down 15.8%
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