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Figures reveal huge drop in students starting university

The number of mainstream students set to start higher education courses in England this year is down 62,000, or 17 per cent, on last year's figures, analysis by Times Higher Education suggests.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service today published data for students accepting places for 2012-13 study that give a bigger drop than previous figures, which included those deferring to next year.

It is the first time Ucas has published such figures. The publication was prompted by rising concern among universities about the fall in student numbers for 2012-13, the first under fees of up to £9,000.

The latest figures show a dramatic fall in the student population that comes under the Higher Education Funding Council for England's student number control arrangements, including the population with A-level grades of AAB or higher.

The number of such students - which includes most full-time undergraduates on standard three-year courses - accepting places at English universities is currently 302,300, down from a student number control limit of 364,325 in 2011-12 - a 17 per cent fall. The fee income from 62,000 students would total about £1.5 billion over three years.

Ucas says the difference in acceptances for such students is currently 52,000, a drop of 15 per cent, when using comparable figures from the same point in last year's admissions cycle.

It says in its release that reporting acceptances by year of entry, rather than by year of the admissions cycle in which the applicant applied "is a better guide to the likely number of Ucas acceptances starting higher education in an academic year when there have been changing patterns of deferred acceptances".

The drop in student numbers is likely to have been caused by three factors: higher fees deterring students from accepting places; a high number of students deferring entry until next year coupled with a low number that deferred last year; and the lower-than-expected number of AAB students.

The latest Ucas figures show that the number of students with AAB or higher at A level - or equivalent qualifications - accepted for 2012-13 places is 79,200 - lower than the 85,000 estimated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The government, which believed the AAB system would allow leading universities to expand, tasked Hefce with estimating AAB numbers.

But the drop in the number of students achieving top A-level grades has helped make Hefce's figure an overestimate - and has left some universities in the Russell Group short of students and unable to make up all their numbers with non-AAB students.

The 62,000 shortfall is unlikely to alter significantly before the close of clearing on 21 September.

Ucas says in its data release: "These statistics reflect the position recorded at four weeks after GCE A-level results day (13 September 2012 for the 2012 cycle). Acceptances at this point have varied between 98 per cent and 99 per cent of the end of cycle totals over recent cycles."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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