Why Applications to UK Universities Are Still on the Rise

Image shows graduates throwing their mortarboards into the air.Tuition fees have never been far from the headlines in the last decade, and they’ve been a feature of numerous election campaigns since their introduction in 1998.

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When it was announced that tuition fees would be rising to an unprecedented level of £9,000 a year, there were understandable fears that the increasing cost of attaining a degree would put more people off applying to university. Fears apparently proved justified when applications to UK universities fell by 7.6% immediately after the introduction of these higher fees. However, another year later, the trend appears to be reversing: applications to UK universities have now risen by 4%, suggesting that the initial impact of the fee increase may not be lasting. But why are more students than ever choosing to saddle themselves with this unprecedented level of student debt? And are UK students really applying in greater numbers, or can the increase be explained by applications from international students? Today, we discuss reasons why UK applicants are still applying despite the higher fees, and explore the possible factors behind an increasing number of applications from overseas.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all University Preparation articles."Funding makes it affordable

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Greater funding has helped keep fees affordable for most.

Perhaps the most important point to remember here is that while tuition fees may have risen, the funding available to UK and EU students has risen too. UK applicants have access to the funding they need to cover the higher costs of tuition, in the form of bigger student loans. What’s more, it’s not as if the fees have to be paid upfront; graduates don’t have to pay anything back until they’re earning above the £21,000 threshold, and even then it’s only a small proportion of a graduate’s earnings that goes towards repaying the loan each month (and it comes out of their pay packet at the same point as tax, before the net wages reach them). If they never earn above this threshold – which, with a good degree, is admittedly unlikely – then they will never pay it back. It’s almost like a ‘no win, no fee’ business model, and the initial financial outlay is minimal. The high tuition fees are paid upfront by the education authority, so it’s not as if the student has to write a £9,000 cheque for each year they’re at university.

The value of a degree is still worth the tuition fees

Image shows a student working in a library.
The valuable transferable skills your degree will teach you make it great value for money.

Another reason why university applications are unlikely to be adversely affected by higher tuition fees in the long term is surely that the value of a degree is still worth the higher tuition fees, particularly if the degree is from a university with a strong reputation among employers. A degree does a lot more than just conferring subject-specific academic knowledge on a graduate. Graduates can command higher starting salaries, and will often earn more over the course of their lifetimes than those without a degree. What’s more, they’re likely to find it easier to get a job than someone without a degree. That’s because going to university teaches a host of transferable skills that employers love. Graduates have a much higher level of skills such as communication, time and project management, analytical abilities, numeracy, teamwork and so on. This makes them more employable than someone who’s just left school, who would need to be trained to a greater extent in order to acquire the necessary skills for working in a business. These career benefits outweigh the financial burden of a degree, and mean that the costs associated with going to university are unlikely to have a significant impact on the number of university applications in the long term.
What’s more, university provides valuable life experience, and many see going to university as a rite of passage that gives them a transition period between childhood and adulthood. “The university experience” is often cited as a reason why students choose to study for a degree, as it’s where many students make friends they’ll keep for the rest of their lives, and maybe even meet their future spouse. It’s also a safe place to learn about how to manage money, deal with grown-up things like renting houses, and take responsibility for mundane household chores. Going straight into employment after school is much more of a shock to the system in terms of adapting to ‘real life’.

A fall in gap years

Image shows a young woman jumping into a pool.
A gap year is no longer seen as an essential rite of passage.

The rise in applications this year should also be viewed in light of data that shows a sharp fall in the number of students taking gap years in the year before the higher tuition fees were introduced. If we look at this table from UCAS, we see that the number of applications rose in 2011, the year before the higher tuition fees were introduced, and then fell in 2012, the year in which they were introduced. This could be explained by a rush of applications the year before, as students sought to apply before the increase. It could be that those who might have had a gap year, and therefore applied the next year, instead chose to eschew a gap year to avoid the higher fees, which would result in a lower number of applications the following year and a return to previous levels in the years after that. Sure enough, this hypothesis is supported by the table showing deferred entries (those taking a gap year), which reveals a dramatic fall in the number of students deferring a year from 2011 to 2012, from nearly 30,000 to just 13,200 (or 6% of applications falling to just 2.7%). The number is now increasing again, and deferred entries now account for around 5% of the total number of applications.

Universities are working harder to attract students

With the rise in tuition fees, universities are now working a lot harder to entice students to apply to them. Glancing through a university prospectus or website these days, you’ll notice a concerted effort on the part of the university to justify why a student should choose them. Statistics about student satisfaction, student-lecturer ratios, average graduate starting salaries and so on are now more readily available than ever before, and this is partly because universities are now doing more to justify the money students are paying to study with them. The tuition fee rise, then, is driving up competition between universities to attract the best students.

Initiatives designed to get people to go to university

Image shows UK council housing.
Universities are increasingly under pressure to encourage students from lesser well-off backgrounds to apply.

What’s more, there’s more access work being done to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply to university. There are more grants and bursaries available to such students, which means that the higher tuition fees, paradoxically, are often much less of a problem for poorer students than for those from more affluent families. This is confirmed by figures that show that the rate of university applications from students who come from poorer backgrounds is rising faster than from any other students; indeed, applications from within the wealthiest 20% of families have remained at the same level. Students from the UK’s poorest areas are now almost twice as likely to apply to university than they were a decade ago, and the figures continue on a positive trend (though the gap between poor and affluent application numbers remains high, as affluent students are still two and a half times more likely to apply). What’s more, figures show that applications from British 18-year-olds are now at their highest level ever, fuelled by a rise in applications from London and among women. This is despite the fact that the number of 18-year-olds in the general population has fallen.

The UK is a great place to study

Leaving all this aside, it would appear that the primary reason for the increase in applications is that more overseas students are applying than ever before. Applications from EU students rose by 5%, and those from non-EU students have soared by over 10%, despite tougher immigration laws and a concerted effort to stamp out bogus student applications. While students from Hong Kong and China continue to top the list of countries sending large numbers of students to study at UK universities, applications from Malaysia have risen by a quarter. This rise in overseas applications surely reflects the fact that the UK remains a fantastic place in which to complete a degree for those who flock to study here from around the world. There are numerous possible reasons why the UK is seen as so attractive to international students; here are the most salient, and you’ll find even more in this article.

A high density of world-class universities

Image shows Hertford College, Oxford.
Oxford is just one of the UK’s many outstanding universities.

The UK has an enviable density of world-class universities, with several that rank in the world’s top ten. Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the only prestigious universities in the UK that enjoy an international reputation; the London School of Economics, Imperial College London and UCL (University College London) are all examples of other famous UK universities that attract students from all over the world. Students know that big-name universities not only give a great impression to potential employers, but also that they provide superb networking opportunities. These top universities educate the political and business leaders of tomorrow, and many international students are drawn to UK universities because of the contacts they will make, both with fellow students and staff, and with the employers who specifically target graduates of these universities.

The ready availability of jobs

The UK also has plenty of jobs available to graduates of its top universities, particularly in London, but many of the country’s university cities have developed graduate economies that thrive on the ready availability of talented graduates. Oxford and Cambridge, for example, both have science parks and business parks that attract companies looking to recruit graduates of the cities’ prestigious universities. With the UK economy now picking up after years of gloom, well-paid graduate jobs are on the rise, and they’re making it ever more attractive to have a university degree – and worth the cost. Overseas students who want to get a job in the UK will be in a much better position to do so with a degree from a top UK university.

The UK’s interesting culture

Image shows the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall.
Whether your taste runs more to Proms or festivals, the UK is a great place for culture.

For international students, the UK’s interesting culture is also a major draw. With its fascinating history, weird and wonderful traditions (both in individual universities and in the country as a whole) and wealth of tourist hotspots, the UK is undoubtedly an attractive place to study from a cultural point of view. The UK’s culture is rich and varied, with its music scene drawing particular attention from all around the world. What’s more, as English is such a useful language to have, many international students are drawn to the UK by the prospect of achieving real fluency in the language, which is only really possible by spending a prolonged period of time in the UK, and which stands them in good stead for an international career.

Final thoughts

It would seem, then, that the prospects of the UK’s universities aren’t quite so bleak as was previously feared in light of higher tuition fees. After an apparently shaky start under the new fees, applications to UK universities continue to rise, both among students from outside the UK and EU, and from students from poorer backgrounds in the UK – the latter being the very group of students whom one might have expected to have been put off by the higher fees. For international students, the UK has the ability to provide the ideal foundations for an impressive career, and the attraction doesn’t look set to diminish any time soon.
If you’d like to experience a taster of what it’s like to study in the UK yourself, why not come on an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course? Our summer school covers many different subjects, and we can help you with preparing for the IELTS exam and applying for university. We also have dedicated English as a Foreign Language courses, which will help develop your skills in academic English ready for you to apply to a UK university. Even better, you’ll study in the historic environs of Oxford University’s beautiful colleges, an inspiring environment that’s sure to spur you on to achieve the academic results you’re more than capable of.

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Image credits: banner; money; studying; gap year; council housing; Hertford College; Proms.