At the start of July, UCAS revealed the university application figures for the next academic year. Applications in England were down by 10 per cent, year-on-year. And the number of older applicants (over 25 years old) was down even more, by an imprecise 15-20 per cent.
Yet politicians, UCAS and the media, reacted to the news by downplaying its significance. David Willetts, Universities Minister, saw it as a mere dip from a previous record high level. The number of places available, the press noted, still exceed the number wanting to go to university. Furthermore, UCAS declared, taking something called “falling populations” into account, the drop in England was really 5 per cent not 10 per cent.
So why all the comforting re-assurance? After all, the decline is the ‘steepest fall for 30 years’, and comes at the start of a cycle of further HE funding cuts. The number of places available may exceed demand but that is cold comfort to individual universities where applications fell by 25 per cent or more. Conventional economic theory suggests when supply exceeds demand, some suppliers get eliminated.
But most puzzling of all is the absence in the reporting, of reference to the wider context and the influence that may be having on applications. As Bill Clinton put it -‘It’s the economy stupid!’ For while the press and media are devoting pages and hours to the economic and financial crisis, its consequences and potential duration, this seems to be absent from analysis of the university application figures. Why?
Higher education is now a highly politicised arena. The government’s Austerity Plan A included a commitment to up-skilling the workforce to degree level to fire up a struggling economy and enhancing competition in a globalised world to stimulate a ‘knowledge economy’ par excellence. However, its commitment to public expenditure reduction also means this national plan is now dependent on university applicants’ individual ‘investment decisions’. Many will have to decide whether or not to get into debt to seek a degree, ironically encouraged by a government simultaneously preaching debt is bad for the country.
Viewing higher education as an economic policy tool is contentious in several ways. The economist Ha-Joon Chang, has argued that experience shows a positive link between higher educational levels and better national economic performance is weak at best and non-existent at worse, in the absence of other macro-economic policies. And sociologists, Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton see the churning out of more and more graduates as creating “an auction for cut-price brainpower”, leading to a high-skill but low-wage economy. Hardly an encouragement to ‘invest’ in applying to university. And the context indicators seem to bear this out.
A time to take on debt?
A recent survey found three quarters of recruiters only consider graduate job applicants with a minimum class 2.1. degree. And while graduates in work continue to earn more per hour than those without a degree, recent graduates (up to two years after graduating) are not finding work easy to come by. They have a near 19 per cent unemployment rate, way above the general UK figure of 8.2 per cent. This is not far off the total rate of UK youth unemployment (18 to 24 year olds) of nearly 22 per cent. Even for those graduates in employment, 36 per cent were found to be employed in lower skilled work, with of course far lower wages than their qualifications warranted.
This fits with the widening unemployment ratio between young and adult workers in this country. Despite the generally lower qualification levels adults in employment, young jobseekers in Britain are more than three and a half times more likely to be unemployed. The ratio in Germany is only one and a half times.
Meanwhile the prospects, as reflected in economic trends and forecasts, are gloomy. The International Monetary Fund has recently substantially downgraded itsgrowth forecasts for the UK economy up to 2016. It claims it will only grow by 0.2 per cent in 2012, a dramatic cut from a previous weak 0.8 per cent prediction. Astonishingly it has advised the UK government to pull back from it’s austerity programme before it’s too late. And while it was good news that total unemployment fell in July, the number of long-term unemployed rose by 3,000 and the number of long-term young unemployed remains 33.5 per cent higher than a year ago.
Meanwhile, average earnings rose by 1.4 per cent in the month, some way below the inflation rate. This means another fall in real wages in line with the first three months of 2012, when the Consumer Price Index (measuring the cost of goods in the UK) rose by 3.5 per cent - six times higher than the growth in wages over the same period.
In the Sherlock Holmes story ‘Silver Blaze’, a prize racehorse is stolen from its’ stables in the night, without anyone hearing a sound or the guard dog raising the alarm. The ‘world’s first consulting detective’ speaks about the crime and refers "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." But the dog did nothing? “That” said Holmes “was the curious incident."
Could the failure to consider the impact of present and possible future economic developments amount to just such a 'curious incident'? It may be that neither government ministers or some of our media want to draw attention to yet another potential area in which government policy looks like failing. Or could it be that some are ‘fighting the last war’ forlornly hanging on to a piece of university ‘pop wisdom’ that higher unemployment tends to prod more people to re-skill or up-skill by getting a degree? But the funding mechanisms to do so this time are about to change dramatically.
What conclusions can then be drawn from the July application levels? Potential applicants are just putting off their ‘investment decisions’ and figures will rise again by September/October? If so there are thin grounds for optimism Or is it, as some have suggested, that many universities are behaving like rabbits caught in the headlights? Bemused and befuddled as to what may happen over the next three years, forlornly hoping the fog will soon clear and the way forward become crystal clear.
The application figures suggest we may be about to experience the start of the biggest shake-up in English higher education we’ve ever seen. So those institutions that call the government’s bluff that they are now free (freer?) to operate as they wish ‘in the marketplace’ may consider devising strategies as if the dog has in fact already barked. Universities and government just do not want to hear it.
If so, instead of polishing and tweeking corporate images, universities might want to devise innovative strategies to respond to the real economic concerns and developments affecting potential applicants ‘investment decisions’. New approaches to finance, study patterns and future employment prospects will be some of the issues that need to be included in creative strategic response.
The views expressed in this post, as in all posts on Society Matters, are the views of the author, not The Open University.
Cartoon by Catherine Pain