Student numbers are falling drastically: something to celebrate or cause for concern?

By Juliette Holland

That time of year has arrived again, when photos of 18-year-olds celebrating their university places are rife and university adverts for clearing inescapable. However, does this year mark a change in the long enduring pattern of an ever-increasing student population?

Less school leavers are now choosing to go to university, or so some statistics suggest. The BBC reported a 2% decline in university applications from last year, with UCAS noting a decrease of 11,000 in applications. But sources have interpreted these statistics differently, some citing them as an anomaly, others as a stagnation, a figure as equally proportionate to the number of school leavers in the population as usual.

What is clear is that there has been a palpable shift in attitudes towards university, with a marked scepticism beginning to find its feet. But is it really so terrible that people may be considering different routes?

There are a number of reasons why young people may be deciding to pursue a different path, the often-cited exorbitant tuition fees being an undeniably substantial one. With the average graduate leaving university with £57,000 of debt (although, as the government likes to remind us, they do not pay it off until they are earning £21,000, and indeed they may never pay it off at all), the very prospect of an almost everlasting debt is hardly likely to entice.

What is more, despite the increasing cost of degree education, graduates seem unable to reap the same benefits enjoyed by previous generations. Long gone are the days when a degree was commensurate with a highly skilled job, and the youth of today are more than aware that a degree is by no means a guarantee of employment. As research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development confirms, 58.8% of UK graduates end up in non-graduate jobs.

Additionally, maintenance loans are often not enough to cover living costs at many British universities, with many students having to take on part-time jobs to cover expenses. Add to this a heightened awareness of many students’ fraught mental health; for many, university is simply no longer worth the strain, emotionally or financially.

Perhaps it is not a bad thing that young people are choosing not to subject themselves to this. For too long, university has been pushed by the government and education system as the only viable path to success. Yet many are not suited to academia; a loss of interest in university is the perfect opportunity for the government to seize, encouraging and invigorating alternative paths such as apprenticeships.

Similarly, the increasing accessibility of university means that many often go for the wrong reasons, in a feeble attempt to avoid missing out on the student experience rather than with a genuine desire to pursue an academic discipline further. Less of this surely cannot be condemned. That less people may be choosing university demonstrates a self-awareness, a comprehension that the ‘degree equals highly skilled job’ formula is but a myth, and a dangerous one that only creates disillusionment, the loss of which should not be deplored.

Vitally, for many, a degree is not worth the money; despite promises of the best graduate employment rates, many universities’ graduates will never pay off their loans. Indeed, lower and middle-ranking institutions are now having to beg students to come to them, disseminating copious unconditional offers to incentivise young people to bring them their business.

For this is the very problem with the system: a commercial tone that commodifies education has been set. The very value-for-money perspective I have described is in itself problematic and a consequence of a system that places commercial viability at the heart of every decision; a value system antithetical to education’s true worth.

It hardly seems fair that it is students from less well-off backgrounds that end up with the most debt, a dire punishment and reinforcement of social inequality. Indeed, the expansion of universities has little to do with a desire to promote and facilitate access to education. It has far more to do with profitability.

A desire to maximise student numbers may indeed stem from the income that each new student brings, notably a profit of £1,400. Higher education generates £59 billion for the UK economy, placing it above both the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. Similarly, an attempt to reduce the pensions of university staff seems somewhat in line with a desire to maximise profit margins.

So, if people are deciding not to go to university because academia is not for them or because they would rather pursue an apprenticeship (an option increasingly entering the public light), as some seem be, then this is positive. But if this value system is preventing people who would like to further their academic study from doing so, as I suspect it is for some, then a waning interest in university is something to be concerned about.

Photograph: Sky News

2 Responses

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  1. Nemo
    Aug 28, 2018 - 10:36 AM

    The facts are fairly clear: as well-menaing as the expansion chamioned by the the late Sir Ron Deering was in the earlier part of this century, it was not sustainable. This is obvious when you look at several factors: the financial situaiton with the student loan debt book; the state of the HE system and the market reforms that have been imposed on it, and the damage to othe rparts of the teriatart/ higher education secotr. FE is a wasteland, and despite protestation otherwise, the vocational sectorisa mess.

    And we have to face the fact that not all the skilled jobs out there need a degree. In fact, the requirement for a degree by some employers had almost been fetishised. Take nursing, which soon will require a degree to enter, when previously this was a career with a significant vocational, hands-on focus. Part of this started when the divisions between the old polytechnic system and traditional universities were remved in the early 1990s. As a result, some institutions lost a focus on what an academic degree meant, especially as it meant trying to appeal to students who were less able to cope with the demands of traditional academic work. Widening the student base in this way was always going to mean putting more pressure on institutions, who then had to provide more remdial services for students who were stuggling to meeet someof those demands.

    Then there’s the money. The cost of all of this has spiralled. And it has acted as a disincentive to some, especially the least well off. And so we have concerns in places like here that the student base is too “middle class”, too full of people who either don’t worry about debtt, becasue they are accustomed to enviornments where the scheduling of debi is commonplace and easy, because stability and continuity is expected, or they are affluent enough not to need to take those debts on in the first place, because they have the capital to play up front. Durham is unlike huge parts of the HE sector, and the pressures elsewhere are becoming ever greater. Of course, with all of this debt, students are quite right to ask whether there is a “value proposition” for them. This is even more tragic because the neo-liberal mindset has pervaded the discussion: every thought about value is couched in terms of *personal* return on investment (how will it get me a better job? for example), and atomised. Little is ever mentioned about the wider societal benfits of large numbers of educated people to society in general. It’s striking, for example, that there was significant correlation between voting remian and the level of your education. One might wonder why that is, but perhaps it’s just because exposure to more, and more complex, ideas helps you to understand the intricacies and complications of such a system, and to be able to cope with the conditional and contingent. They are in fact supposedly some of the key “soft skills” tht a graduate-level education is *supposed* to give you.

    I think it’s almost inevitable that the university system will have to shrink. There will be less money around in the years to come. Austerity is going nowhere soon, and the aftermath of Brexit will not help. There is already talk of slicing the little money governement now gives to HE even more thinly, and power will get concentrated even further in the “better” institutions. Strugglers will go to the wall, or be forced to merge or find partners to survive. Wihout sinificant investment in other routes, things are not going to get better. For many, the value of a degree will come into even sharper focus.

    • nemo
      Aug 28, 2018 - 10:39 AM

      (I wish I’d proof-read that first para better. sorry)


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