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Large drop in early university applications

The number of people applying to universities in the UK as part of the main applications cycle has fallen by 14 per cent compared with last year, new figures show.

According to the latest statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, there were 8.4 per cent fewer applicants to UK institutions at 19 November this year compared with the same point last year.

However, these figures include those who must apply to university by October each year - such as applicants to Oxbridge and medical schools - which have remained relatively steady year-on-year.

When these statistics are taken out of the figures, the number of applicants to other universities and courses has fallen by 14,513 or 14.1 per cent.

This is despite last year's applicants being the first to face tuition fees of up to £9,000, a factor some thought would cause a one-off dip in applications.

There is still more than a month before the final 15 January deadline faced by most applicants, so the statistics could reflect a decision by more people to delay their application.

In November 2011, the statistics show the number of applicants had dropped by 12.9 per cent compared with 2010, but this gap had narrowed by January 2011.

However, some in the sector have warned that if these latest figures represent a sustained year-on-year fall in applications, it could raise serious questions about the government's policy to triple tuition fees.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, said: "It is very early in the applications cycle and many potential students take time to explore their options but alarm bells should be ringing in government.

"There is now a real risk that the trend towards widening opportunities that has been a feature of university admissions in recent years will be thrown into reverse."

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said although the data represented "early numbers" the government "should now finally admit that its higher education policies are having a significant impact on application behaviour".

But Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said people should "refrain" from drawing too many conclusions from the latest figures.

"Prospective students still have a month and a half to make their applications in time for the Ucas deadline in mid-January.

"This time last year predictions were being made that demand would drop rapidly, but by January applicant figures had rallied and overall applications by the end of the cycle were not down by as much as many had feared."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said: "It is too early in this year's application cycle to drawn any firm conclusions.

"Numbers are down across the devolved administrations and November has historically been a poor guide to changes in applications at the 15 January deadline as Ucas make clear in their publication."

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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