Fees deter 30,000 students

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Ministers are bracing themselves for an announcement this week of a sharp fall of around 30,000 university applications after the Government's decision to charge tuition fees of pounds 1,000 a year from next September.

Tomorrow is the deadline for applications, and confidential figures sent out to universities at the end of last week suggest that the fall could be as much as between eight and 10 per cent - unless, that is, there is an unprecedented rush of applications this weekend.

Officials at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) were working through the weekend to clear piles of last-minute applications. The figures sent to universities show that the number of overseas and EU applicants is up, suggesting that the figure for home applicants may be even lower than the Government fears.

New universities appear to have suffered the most, with applications for some down by as much as a quarter. Even Oxford University has experienced a marginal fall in the number of applicants.

Conservatives argue that tomorrow's figures will expose as hollow the Government's contention that it wants the number of young people in higher education to increase. They say that the abolition of grants for living costs and their replacement by a loan is more likely to deter applicants than the introduction of tuition fees.

Ministers will deny that the decline in numbers is serious, and portray it as a small drop, most of which can be explained, they say, by the 26,000 extra students believed to have gone to university this year to avoid paying tuition fees.

Universities offered places for 310,000 students this autumn, but 336,000 were admitted. The Government is also hoping that some students have merely delayed their applications because they are uncertain about details of the new funding arrangements.

Dr Kim Howells, junior education and employment minister, told the Commons last week that, even in previous years, 25 per cent of applications have been made after the closing date. UCAS, the Vice-Chancellors' Committee and the Standing Conference of Principals have just sent out 400,000 leaflets to schools, reminding potential applicants that it is not too late to apply. The leaflets also explain the financial rewards associated with a university degree.

Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive, said that the organisation would make no comment until after the deadline.