Today's announcement of a drop in the number of applicants for university this September is a signal that top-up fees have deterred some young people from contemplating higher education. Numbers applying by the 15 January closing date were down by 12,941 on last year, a drop of 3.4 per cent. But numbers applying to university last year, 2005, were abnormally high, perhaps because people were anticipating the introduction of the £3,000-a-year fee. So this year's drop should not be seen as too serious. Indeed, compared with two years ago, applications are up.
When the first Blair government introduced the flat-rate tuition fee in 1998, numbers of applicants also dropped slightly. But the figures then went back up again, a sign that young people valued higher education and were prepared to pay a contribution towards it. If the funding experts are right, the same thing will happen now. Once the top-up fee regime has settled down and families understand it properly, intelligent people will play the system. Better-off families will pay for a higher education that brings them huge private benefit, and the less well-off will shop around for the best bursaries on offer, mindful that they won't have to pay back any of the cost until they are earning £15,000 or more. Indeed, it is to be hoped that more realistic pricing of degree courses will mean that would-be students will think harder about the programmes they choose to study, selecting those that they really care about or that will be useful to them in life.
It is interesting that students from the continent of Europe continue to sign up for British degrees despite top-up fees, which they will be expected to pay (though there is still a question mark over how they will be made to repay them). Are they coming because they want to become fluent in English or because they like British campus life? The number of applicants from the EU is up by 1,716 (14 per cent). The number of overseas applicants, from outside the EU, is down by 991 (4.3 per cent), a reflection of a number of factors - the high cost of the fees they pay, the fact that other countries are piling into the marketplace and, perhaps, because they don't always get a good deal in the UK.
The best news is that numbers applying to study maths has gone up by 11.5 per cent. Whoever would have predicted that?