Leading article: Early signs of realism on tuition fees

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With preliminary figures indicating that university applications are down by a mere 9 per cent since the trebling of tuition fees, lurid predictions of an entire generation consigned to the educational scrapheap are starting to appear mercifully exaggerated.

So far, the squeeze on applicant numbers is far from transformational. Last year, as a glut of would-be students tried to get in ahead of the fee increases, some 160,000 applicants were turned away. Given that the number of places is broadly static this year, it would take considerably more than a 9 per cent drop to take the number of applications down below the number of available places.

More encouraging still, although the drop in applications from within the UK is a slightly higher 12 per cent, anecdotal evidence suggests fears that intakes of disadvantaged students would suffer worst from fees hiked to £9,000 per year are not borne out. That being the case, it is arguably no bad thing if prospective students are conducting more careful cost-benefit analyses before signing up for a degree.

Taken at face value, therefore, the data looks rather less bleak than doom-mongers predicted at the height of the dispute over fees. Look closer, however, and there are details that must at least give pause for thought. Most striking is the fact that the number of women applying for university places is falling so much faster than the number of men. And it can be no coincidence that some of the subject areas seeing the biggest drops are those allied to traditionally female-dominated areas of the public sector, such as education and nursing. With women already facing a disproportionate hit from both welfare reductions and public-sector job cuts, further evidence of a gender bias in the fallout from government spending cuts cannot be ignored.

There is no immediate cause for panic. There are still considerably more female applicants than male, even with the sharper rate of decline. And with the main deadline for university applications not until January, it is not yet time for firm conclusions. But while it may be too soon for alarm at the impact of higher fees, it is also too soon for complacency.