Universities warn of stiff competition this year

Guardian

Universities warn of stiff competition as recession prompts big rise in applications

• Mature students opt to retrain during downturn
• Weak pound boosts numbers from overseas

* Polly Curtis, education editor
* The Guardian, Monday 16 February 2009

The recession has triggered a scramble for a place at university with a record-breaking 465,000 people applying to begin a degree this September and a significant increase in the number of older applicants, official figures suggest.

Vice-chancellors warned last night that with a 7.8% increase in applications – 34,000 more than last year – students face the most intense competition in years.

A last-minute boom in applications in the run-up to the December deadline is thought to have been triggered by people wanting to use academia to escape the recession and be better qualified by the time the jobs market picks up again. The number of applications from over-24s rose by 12.6% and the 20-24 age group increased by 12.9%, the figures published yesterday by the university application service Ucas revealed.

There are also signs that the recession is affecting people’s choice of degree, breeding a new generation of economists and mathematicians. The number of applications for economics degrees increased by 15.7% to a total of 44,750. Applications for maths rose 10.4% and for politics 16.7%.

More people have applied to do training degrees to work in the public sector. Applications for nursing rose by 16.7%, education degrees by 10.7% and teacher training by 3.7%. It is thought that people are opting for “safer” jobs outside business and commerce.

There was a 7.6% decline in applications for building degrees as the construction industry slows, though there were modest rises in business degree applicants.

Applications to Oxford and Cambridge rose 9.9%. The University of Exeter said it had an 18% increase in applications from British students and 88% rise in those outside the EU. New universities and smaller specialist institutions also reported record rises. Bedfordshire University had a 24% rise in home applications.

The race for a place will be intensified this year after the government was forced to reduce the planned expansion of student numbers by 5,000 following a miscalculation of the cost of grants for the poorest students. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was facing a £200m black hole in its funding last year and decided to lower the threshold for partial grants and reduce the planned expansion of student numbers to make it up. Universities have been warned they could face penalties if they expand their student numbers at all to meet demand.

Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor of Exeter University and a board member of Ucas, said: “It feels like the rise in applications is linked to the recession. That happened in previous recessions so we’ve been expecting it. The big problem is that admissions numbers are capped and we’ve got a 7.8% increase in applications. It is the case there will be more competition this year.”

He said it was likely that clearing, the process by which students who haven’t got the grades can find a place at university in the summer, would be much briefer. Where universities often apply some discretion and admit students who have only just missed their grades, they would no longer get this chance, he added.

The Ucas figures also showed that applications from within the EU had risen by 14% and from outside the EU by 9% because of the weak pound.

The National Union of Students last night called for the government to lift the cap on student numbers. Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, said: “The government needs to weigh up the costs of putting people through higher education with the cost of unemployment. It is cruel to raise aspirations, convince people to apply and then close the door on them.”

Diana Warwick, chief executive of the university umbrella group Universities UK, said: “These are very encouraging figures. Applicants are making informed choices and thinking carefully about the value of higher education, particularly in the current economic climate. Following last year’s record-breaking year for applications and acceptances, we call on government to ensure this growth is matched with continued financial support.”

A source close to the universities secretary, John Denham, said there were no plans to change the cap on numbers.

Anthony McClaran, Ucas chief executive, said: “There has been considerable speculation about the effect of current economic conditions on applications for higher education but these figures give some assurance that demand remains strong. Education is a long-term investment for the individual and for society as a whole.”

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