Admissions Latest

Only time for a short post today, so I thought I’d just pass on a link to the latest  Higher Education application  statistics, as reported by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

It’s still several weeks before the UCAS deadline closes in January so it’s too early to see exactly what is happening, but the figures do nevertheless make interesting reading.

The total number of applications nationally  is down by 12.9% on last year, but the number of  applications from UK domiciled students has fallen by 15.1%; an increase in applications from non-EU students is responsible for the difference in these figures.

Non-science subjects seem to be suffering the biggest falls in application numbers; physical sciences are doing better than average, but still face a drop of 7% in numbers. Anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from chatting to Physics & Astronomy colleagues is that some departments are doing very well, even increasing on last year, while others are significantly down. It is, however, far too early to tell how these numbers will translate into bums on seats in lecture theatres.

A particular concern for us here in Wales are the statistics of applications to Welsh universities.  The number of English-domiciled applicants to Welsh universities is down by 17.4% while the number of Welsh applicants to Welsh universities is down by 15.2%. On the other hand, the number of Welsh applicants to English universities is down by just 5.3%.

The pattern of cross-border applications is particularly important for Welsh Higher Education  because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of subsidizing Welsh-domiciled students wherever they study in the United Kingdom, a policy which is generous to students but which is paid for by large cuts in direct university funding.  The more students take the WAG subsidy out of Wales, the larger will be the cuts in grants to Welsh HEIs.

Moreover, in the past, about 40% of the students in Welsh universities come from England.  If the fee income from incoming English students is significantly reduced relative to the subsidy paid to outgoing Welsh students then the consequences for the financial health of Welsh universities are even more dire.

Although it is early days the figures as they stand certainly suggest the possibility that the  number of Welsh students  studying in England will increase both relative to the number staying in Wales and relative to the number of English students coming to study in Wales. Both these factors  will lead to a net transfer of funds from Welsh Higher Education Institutions to their English counterparts.   I think the policy behind this is simply idiotic, but by the time the WAG works this out it may be too late.

Another interesting wrinkle on the WAG’s policy can be found in a piece in last week’s Times Higher. We’re used to the idea that people might relocate to areas where schools or  local services are better or cheaper, but consider the incentives on an English  family who are thinking of the cost of sending their offspring to University. The obvious thing for them  to do is to relocate to Wales in order to collect the WAG subsidy which they can then spend sending their little dears to university in England. That will save them tens of thousands of pounds per student, all taken directly from the Welsh Higher Education budget and paid into to the coffers of an English university.

There are already dark rumours circulating that the WAG subsidy will turn out to be so expensive that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is thinking of cancelling all its research funding. That means that Welsh universities face the prospect of having to take part in the burdensome Research Excellence Framework, in competition with much better funded English and Scottish rivals, but getting precisely no QR funding at the end of it.

And all this is because the Welsh Assembly Government wants to hand a huge chunk of its budget back to England. Is this how devolution is supposed to work? Madness.

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27 Responses to “Admissions Latest”

  1. A colleague here at Leicester pointed out that applications have fallen every time fees have increased, with a significant increase in applications having occurred the year before. So perhaps the figure we really want to compare is 2009/10 v 2011/12.

    As for Wales (and NI and Scotland), it seems to an Englishman that the real reason for the policy is to thumb noses at England, the English, Westminster and its Government. Now given that I am 100% opposed to fees (HE should be paid from general taxation just like schools, roads, military, health etc), I can sort of see the point of view. Except in Wales (and NI I understand) the thumbing of the nose may result in the cutting off to spite the face.

  2. telescoper Says:

    The obvious – and justified – thumbing the nose tactic would have been to keep fees low at Welsh universities, make them free for Welsh-domiciled students, but make Welsh students going to England pay the full whack.

  3. I don’t think the WAG policy is daft . If you want to support Welsh students through HE, then it makes sense to support them to go to the best universities, whether in Wales or across the border. It’s obviously a bit of a gamble whether the cross-border traffic is roughly the same both ways, but a reasonable bet given that that is the way it has been in the past. The bet may end up being a bad one, but I don’t think that it is an unreasonable one to have made.

    • telescoper Says:

      Why not pay for them all to go to Harvard then?

      • because if they go to the states… its perhaps less likely that they will return to the uk (or specifically wales) to work – and so benefit the principality with their new-found skills/knowledge.

        i disagree with matt – much of the benefit of university education goes to the recipient (at least under the current tax system) and so a situation where they contribute more (either up-front or over time) seems more equitable (better yet if it could be applied retrospectively). this also has the advantage that when the students know they are spending their “own” money – they might be more discerning customers of what universities offer: degrees.

  4. Phil Uttley Says:

    This seems very odd – why would the number of welsh student applications go down when they aren’t paying the fees? This either suggests that the fees aren’t the reason for the drop in England (perhaps it is more the economic situation, but I would have thought that would only encourage people to beef up their skills while times are hard…). Or, perhaps the University of Wales debacle has had an impact on Welsh numbers? It would be very interesting to know what the difference was between the newest universities and the olthers, e.g. the big 4 in Wales vs. the rest?

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I disagree with Peter’s argument to a substantial degree.

    The problem here is that many Welsh students are choosing to study in English universities rather than in Welsh universities. Surely the problem is that Welsh universities appear less attractive to some Welsh students than do universities in England?

    We must ask ourselves why this is so. One obvious reason will be the death throes of the University of Wales which will have discredited the whole Welsh university system. Another may be that most Welsh universities are small and may be seen as not offering what many established English universities are able to offer (in education and in terms of other facilities). Another reason may be that degrees from older, longer established institutions may be preferred by future employers, giving degrees from the metropolitan universities of England a status over institutions from Wales, none of which existed in their current form before 1992.

    Of course, things would be different if the Welsh Government gave funding to students from Wales to study in Wales only, rather than to study anywhere in the United Kingdom. But another solution would be for the Welsh university system to get its act together to make itself more appealing to students. However, the collapse of the old University of Wales structure over the past decade makes this seem very hard.

    • I think part of the problem is that Welsh universities don’t appear very high in the league tables, which is at least partly because of a lack of investment by the WAG through HEFCW. Less QR funding is allocated for research, with the consequence that Welsh universities struggle to perform in the RAE/REF compared to their English counterparts. Worse there is a substantial funding gap in teaching, because the unit of resource (i.e. the amount paid to the uni directly from HEFCW) per student is lower here. Funding per student is taken into direct account in the league tables, so Welsh HEIs are handicapped right at the start. In the new regime it appears likely that there will be no central funding at all – even for science subjects – everything will come from fees.

      I think Welsh-born students are not daft, and they are doing the following calculation: stay in Wales and the Welsh Assembly pays the increased fees but nothing else; go to England and the Welsh Assembly pays the fees but HEFCE also pays the unit of resource (several thousand pounds pa for science subjects). The same expense therefore gets me more funding if I go to England than if I stay in Wales.

      The basic problem is that Wales is trying to sustain too many small universities which leads to substantial waste and the jam is too thinly spread even to support one world-class university.

      My real objection to the WAG policy however is that it pays no need to the importance of universities aside from places where undergraduate are taught: they play an important civic and cultural role quite apart from research and stimulating innovation and industry.

      If Welsh universities are starved of funding, they will not only dwindle in attractiveness to students but will also be unable to play a wider part in the Welsh economy. And the funding that has been withdrawn will instead have been used to subsidise English institutions whose host cities will reap the wider benefits.

    • Yes, league tables are a very important issue. They do influence university applications from many potential students.

      One problem with league tables is that a contribution from teaching quality to the tables comes from the old 1990s assessments, which tended to measure the rigour of teaching processes rather than a more general quality of teaching or curriculum content.

      I’m not sure most applicants for undergraduate courses are familiar with the issue of the relative funding of universities in Wales and England. Indeed, I would suspect that many applicants would believe, wrongly, that Welsh universities must be better funded than English ones (given the different political traditions). The difference in funding level, however, does feed into other things that can be noticed by applicants, such as RAE performance and hence positions in league tables.

      Welsh government money will certainly subsidise communities in English cities through fees to English universities. However, there should still be more students from England studying in Wales than students from Wales studying in England. Therefore there is a larger private subsidy from English students to Wales than Welsh government money going to England.

      It is a challenge for Welsh universities to attract students both from Wales and from England.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    I don’t think Scottish HE policy is specifically designed to thumb a nose at England: it’s primarily a question of doing the right thing.

    Ian S: agreed that many (not all) graduates derive a benefit from their education (although so does society). It would indeed be good to have a system in which they paid in proportion to the benefit, and even better if old graduates like me had to pay. Let’s see, we could call it … income tax. If all parties weren’t so obsessed with cutting the higher rates of tax, the problem would be trivial to solve. Instead, the people who will really get clobbered are those who end up with only modest benefit from their degrees (e.g. teachers on £30k-ish).

    But finally, there’s no evidence that fee disincentives are behind the drops in applications. It seems applications by Scots to Scottish universities are down just as much. Partly this may reflect the fact that it costs a lot just to live through a degree – but maybe also many students don’t think it’s going to help them get a job.

    • telescoper Says:

      On your last point I’ll just reiterate a couple of points:

      1. Applications were substantially up last year on the previous year, so a modest fall this year would not be surprising anyway relative to that baseline.

      2. Even without the increased fees, which are in any case a deferred cost, it is still very expensive to study at university as one has to pay one’s living expenses, accommodation etc up front. It may be this which is causing some to decide not to bother, and may also explain why cross-border applications are down; perhaps more students are going to live at home for their studies?

      I also agree that higher education should be paid for by the taxpayer whether that is through income tax or through taxes on companies that employ graduates, but I don’t think the taxpayer should be funding the plethora of Mickey Mouse degrees currently on offer at some institutions.

      • “…but I don’t think the taxpayer should be funding the plethora of Mickey Mouse degrees currently on offer at some institutions.”

        and surely the best way to achieve that is to make the person taking the course do a cost/benefit analysis of whether its worthwhile to them?

        a graduate tax is an obvious way to ensure those who benefit end up contributing more. a higher rate of high-rate income tax is a cruder (but easier) tool to achieve almost the same result. i think taxing firms isn’t the right approach given current levels of unemployment… hopefully in time enough will see the benefit of contributing to the training of their workforce that they will cover the costs of their degrees directly through bursaries.

      • What about people who might benefit in the sense that they have a degree, but do not benefit that much financially (they earn no more than many people without a degree) and are doing something beneficial to society (and fees, graduate taxes etc would scare enough away that society would miss them)?

  7. John Peacock Says:

    How did we get in this mess? Once upon a time, university degrees were all demanding intellectually, and were taken by a minority of people who had evidence of capacity to cope with that rigour. The main problem with this old status quo was that bright people who didn’t go to the right school were denied admission. But there were no (or few) MM degree courses, and no-one asked about cost/benefit. The whole cost/benefit thing is appalling: history seems to be littered with great creative artists who were forced to be lawyers or doctors for much of their lives. I want universities to offer people the chance to follow their talents/interests without having to fear where that will leave them. Cost/benefit will always conclude that there shouldn’t be degrees in mediaeval japanese, and that is a terrible impoverishment of what universities should be about. We should be capable of imposing high intellectual values on each other, rather than giving in to the temptation to create courses as cash cows. I’m not going to decry courses in media studies on principle: if they can be made rigorous and if talented people want to pursue them, society should be supporting that.

    The problem seems to be that two things got mixed: a desire to open up elite education to all those with sufficient talent, independent of background, and a broader desire for a more educated workforce. The correct solution for the latter was the polytechnics, which should have been expanded and strengthened for diploma-level qualifications. Perhaps the only happy outcome one might expect from the 9k fee vandalism is that it pushes HE back towards the situation it was in pre-1992. But it would have been a lot easier if we hadn’t moved so far from that sensible state.

    • telescoper Says:

      I couldn’t agree more.

    • “history seems to be littered with great creative artists who were forced to be lawyers or doctors for much of their lives”

      IIRC, James Joyce didn’t earn a living from writing books, but rather worked as a language teacher (and far away from Ireland). As you note, there are many other examples.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      I’m completely with you on this one. And I think that income tax should be higher.
      M.
      x

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Then why not set an example and make a voluntary contribution to government coffers?

      • “Then why not set an example and make a voluntary contribution to government coffers?”

        Because this misses the point.

      • John Peacock Says:

        I did just make a contribution to the Government coffers: I went on strike today and thus handed my employer over 100 quid in order to make a point of protest. Something wrong here: isn’t striking supposed to hurt the employer, not you?

      • First, I hope you do earn more than 100 quid per day. :-| Yes, striking is supposed to hurt the employer. Of course, one doesn’t get one’s salary, but the idea is that the loss to the employer is more. If your work wasn’t worth more to him than your salary, then he wouldn’t pay you in the first place.

        The problem, of course, is that in academia, the goal is not profit for the employer (or, at least, it shouldn’t be). As such, striking doesn’t have the same effect as it does elsewhere. Ditto for hospitals etc. At best, one can hope for some sort of sympathy from the general population, but that is difficult when the garbage collectors, say, go on strike.

        I think it would be better to do something like set up some blackboards in the pedestrian zone and hold lectures there, with some flyers to distribute to passers by explaining what’s going on. That way, no loss for the students and a much more positive public perception.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    A factor that has not yet entered this thread is that the issue is coming to a head because of the great expansion of Higher Ed under Major then Blair. Government could afford to pay for degrees for a small proportion of the population but it can’t afford to pay for degrees for 50%. I’m not sure what the solution is but this factor deserves to be tossed into the brew.

    I also agree with Peter that Mickey Mouse Studies do not deserve subsidy at any university, English Scottish or Welsh. But is any politician prepared to grasp the nettle and say that Media Studies is trash but Mathematics isn’t?

    • Its harder to argue Media Studies is trash and English Literature is not trash though…..after all I cannot really see the difference between studying a great work by say Martin Scorcese and a book by Dickens? But somehow one is deemed mickey mouse and the other is not….

      Maybe “film studies” is a better example of something I have heard people call Mickey Mouse. not sure media studies is just the study of films (or what it involves at all to be honest).

  9. [...] Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). A late rush of applications has changed the situation since I last posted about the topic of university admissions, and there is a mixture of good and bad [...]

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