Students skipping university after rise in fees

Students working in the Girton College library in Cambridge. Numbers across the UK are in decline.

Applications to UK universities have plummeted, new figures show. A big rise in fees is widely blamed. But is a falling student population necessarily a bad thing?

When it was announced that tuition fees at UK universities were to rocket from £3500 to £9000, students took to the streets in protest. Marchers flooded the capital, buildings were occupied and windows smashed amid concerns that young people would be put off university education.

2012 is the year when the changes take effect, and the true consequences are starting to emerge. Figures released yesterday show that the number of British-born applicants to England’s universities has fallen by 9.9% – the sharpest decline in thirty years.

Until the middle of the twentieth century university was beyond the reach of all but a few of the most fortunate teenagers. Now almost half of British people attend – but although expanding opportunities benefit many, spiralling teaching costs have forced a rethink on how universities can cope.

The government sees some silver lining. They point out figures that suggest disadvantaged youths are actually less discouraged by the price hike than privileged ones. So fears that high fees would make higher education a luxury for the rich have been calmed.

But others have broader worries. Sally Hunt, who leads a union of university teachers, believes that any fall in applications is bad news. ‘We cannot afford a system that puts people off university if we are to compete in the real world’, she says.

Britain’s universities are among the world’s oldest and most celebrated. Images of students soaking up knowledge among the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford and Cambridge resonate all over the globe.

Yet even before the recent changes, reports suggested that the UK was falling behind other countries in terms of student population. Whether countries should aim to send as many of their young people to university as possible is a question that goes right to the heart of the debate over the purpose of education.

For love or money?

Not everybody is depressed by the falling number of students. A lot of the most popular courses, they point out, teach students no obvious skills to help them in the world of work. Of course doctors, engineers and scientists need higher education, but they only account for a tiny proportion of graduates. The majority have nothing to show for their three years except a pile of debt and a heap of useless knowledge.

Teachers and graduates of these ‘less useful’ subjects protest that this misses the point. For them, education is not just about giving students practical skills. It is about creating thoughtful, engaged people with a deep interest in the world around them. They argue that universities should be storehouses of wisdom, not just training grounds for economic improvement.

You Decide

  1. What should the main goals of university education be?
  2. Is knowledge worth anything if you can’t put it to practical use?


  1. Imagine a world where only practical knowledge was taught, and nobody studied history or English. Write a story set in this world.
  2. Research the issue of university funding and write a speech arguing for or against the increase in fees.

Some People Say...

“Degrees in arty subjects are useless.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do rising fees mean that some people won’t be able to go to university?
Rising fees don’t exclude anyone from university, since there is no need to pay any money immediately. Instead graduates will pay for their tuition gradually, over the course of their working life. Still, some people are clearly dismayed enough about the idea of starting work with a £56,000 debt that they want to look for alternative options.
Which people in particular?
The figures suggest that British students from all backgrounds are a little less enthusiastic about university, but the most discouraged are mature students – those applying more than a year after finishing school. Perhaps they feel that they won’t have time to repay the debts and reap the advantages of a university education before having to retire.

Word Watch

Tuition fees
Until 2003, most UK students had access to free university education through grants given by the government. In 2003 Labour caused controversy by introducing ‘top up fees’ of up to £3000. In 2010 fees soared as the government attempted to get university costs under control, and more student outrage followed.
University of Oxford
Oxford is home to the oldest university in the UK, founded in 1096. It is famous for its academic excellence, but also for its beautiful architecture, the bizarre old uniform that students are forced to wear for exams, and for being the site where much of Harry Potter was filmed.
University of Cambridge
Cambridge University was founded by a group of Oxford scholars who had fallen out with their colleagues and the king over who should appoint England’s bishops – a less obscure issue then than it is now. Cambridge is thought of as one of the world’s best universities.

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