Bad news for life-long learning?

As a Liberal Democrat I have always been an advocate of life-long learning. As a result, the data published by UCAS earlier today on applications for higher education undergraduate programmes in 2017 makes disappointing reading. While the percentage of eighteen year olds applying to university for 2017 entry has reached record levels, the trend amongst older applicants is firmly downwards. This is very disappointing.

According to UCAS, in England, the rates in 2017 fell for all age groups aged 20 and older. The magnitude of these decreases in application rates is comparable to the large fall in 2012 for all of these age groups. The largest proportional decrease was for the 30 to 39 age group (-24.6 per cent proportionally), and the smallest decrease in application rates was for 20 year olds, who decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 3.3 per cent (-10.4 per cent proportionally). The one piece of good news is that despite these falls, the application rates in 2017 for these age groups were between 32 and 83 per cent higher than in 2006.

Elsewhere in the UCAS report it appears that applications from pupils living in disadvantaged areas in England continues to increase, especially applications from women. In England, the ratio between application rates from advantaged and disadvantaged areas was 2.3 in 2017, down from 2.4 in 2016 and appreciably smaller than the 3.8 recorded in 2006. Whether a return to selective education would reverse this positive trend is an issue worth debating. It would seem a likely outcome if the staffing of our secondary schools was affected by any reversal of the non-selective secondary school policy.

The other important feature of the UCAS data that is, perhaps, not unexpected relates to applications from EU domiciled applicants, where there was a fall of 3,000 in the total. However, it was still some 2,000 above the number recorded in 2014. Applicants from elsewhere in the world remained steady at around 52,000.

The ending of the bursary system for nursing degrees, originally negotiated by Frank Dobson as Health Secretary,  when Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced tuition fees for the first time has resulted in a drop of about 10,000 in the number of applicants for these degrees to around 33,000. It would have been helpful to know what effect this decline will have had on the ratio of applicants to places. Could it leave places unfilled or was the competition such that most courses will just find themselves with fewer applicants to consider? Much depends upon the quality of the applicants. If the government uses the cash saved from the bursaries to increase the number of training places on offer, as it suggested it might do at one stage, it is possible that fewer applicants could produce more nurses but less choice for providers. At that stage the issue of quality really does matter. We won’t know the final outcome until after ‘clearing’ in the summer when it should become obvious whether all the places available have been filled.

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