University numbers up but percentage of successful applicants down

Hidden away in today’s figures showing a rise in the no. of university applicants & students is the percentage of unsuccessful applicants - up from 22.4 to 24.7

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union

The news today that the last decade ended with record numbers of students applying to, and being accepted at, university, should represent a resounding success for the government’s policy to increase the number of people going through university. That policy has had its predictable detractors – right wing commentators and those who honestly believe that a better-educated country means standards must be slipping – however, the government has largely stuck to its guns.

Hidden away in today’s figures, though, is the fact that, despite those record numbers of students applying to, and studying at, university, there was actually a decrease last year in the percentage of people applying to university who then were accepted onto a course.

This can be traced back to last year when the expected number of additional student places was scaled back. This was a particularly devastating blow as not only did we have a generation who had been actively encouraged to apply to university keen to go, but also a spike in the number of 18-year-olds.

On top of that, the government then warned institutions that pushed ahead and did accept additional students that they would be fined.

Therefore we have the quite incredible situation where the government today will no doubt trumpet the success of its policy to expand university participation and then, in a month or so, fine the institutions who were brave enough to carry out its policy.

All this comes on the back of devastating cuts planned for a higher education system the government mistakenly believes can deliver more for less. Lord Mandelson speaks warmly about education being a key driver of social mobility, but has announced extra cuts of £135m to universities, on top of the £600m announced in the pre-budget report.

Students, often with the help of their parents, are stumping up record levels of cash to pay their way through university. Yet, as well as massive debts, they will face larger class sizes and substantial cuts to courses. Just last week university chiefs said that up to 30 universities could be forced to close because of financial problems and we have warned that 14,000 jobs are at risk.

The government should be proud of its laudable aim to try and get more people through our universities. However, it must understand that rhetoric alone is not enough. Now, more than ever, the government needs to be brave enough to back its policy and provide the necessary resources the university sector, and record numbers of students, so desperately need.

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