My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford, and at her request, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government the following Question:
How far the reported drop of 4.5 per cent in Universities and Colleges Admissions Service applications from English students to English universities for the next academic year is uniform across socio-economic and ethnic groupings.
My Lords, the application process is not yet complete, and the interim analysis conducted by UCAS covers English applicants to all UK institutions. The analysis shows that the proportions of applicants from high and low socio-economic backgrounds are unchanged from 2005. Sixty-nine per cent of applicants to UK institutions come from socio-economic classifications 1 to 3, and 31 per cent from classifications 4 to 7, which is the same as last year. There is no data available as yet by ethnic grouping.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer, but if he cares to look a little closer at the UCAS figures he will see that, whereas there has been a 2.8 per cent drop in applicants from the top socio-economic group—the managerial and professional groups—the drop in applicants from the lower groups has been 9.5 per cent. There has also been a disproportionate drop in the number of older, more mature applicants. Is it not clear that top-up fees are, at least initially, having an effect on wider participation in higher education?
My Lords, I do not accept that at all. The noble Baroness is simply taking some figures rather than giving the complete picture. The second-lowest decrease, 2.6 per cent, is in fact in the bottom social class of routine occupations. The lowest of all is right in the middle, at 2 per cent for small employers and own-account workers. If we take the top three and bottom three social classes, then, as I said, the proportions are unchanged.
My Lords, does my noble friend recall that a similar effect occurred, which proved to be of momentary duration, when loans for student maintenance were brought in? Will he reaffirm that it is entirely reasonable to ask students to contribute part of the cost of their higher education, which will be of great personal benefit to them, rather than expecting taxpayers—many of them on very modest means and without the same prospects in life as graduates—to subvent the whole cost?
My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend. Of course, the result of the reforms that we have introduced will be a £1.4 billion increase in funding for universities, which I think the House will welcome. Overall participation is up significantly since 1997. The number of full-time undergraduate entrants grew from 261,000 in 1996 to 299,000 in 2004. This year's number will be hugely up on the 1996 figure. We had a similar effect when the first lower-level fees were introduced in 1998. There was a decline in applications in that first year, yet a substantial increase in all subsequent years.
My Lords, it must be right that we do everything to encourage those who would benefit from university to apply. What steps are the Government taking to simplify the current funding, grants and loans schemes which, due to their complexity, may put students off applying?
My Lords, the simplest change that we have made is to introduce a straightforward £2,700 grant for poorer students that simply did not exist before. That is the best deal that poorer students have had in a long time, since the old grants system was changed. We believe that that will have a big impact over time in encouraging applicants from poorer backgrounds.
My Lords, what proportion of applications have come from students from the EU? Are those students eligible for the up-front loans available to English students, and what are the Government doing to secure repayment of those loans after graduation?
My Lords, I cannot give the numbers, but I will write to the noble Baroness. However, those students are eligible, and we have in place robust arrangements with our EU partner countries to recoup the money after graduation.
My Lords, has any attempt been made to differentiate admissions levels in Scotland and in Wales, where top-up fees are not in place, from the level in England? We have had more applicants in Wales and in Scotland.
My Lords, the figures are broken down by country, but the countries have different regimes for student support and fees.
My Lords, it would be a bold person who predicted the future. However, I can tell my noble friend that, even taking into account the decline which I have just mentioned, application numbers this year are substantially up on the figure from two years ago. Last year, there was a very big increase in student applications—an 8.9 per cent increase—from those wishing to avoid the new student finance regime. Even taking account of the decline this year, we are still more than four percentage points up on the position of two years ago. So we are still looking at a substantial improvement over time. As I said, the number of applicants and students who have been accepted is hugely up on the position in 1997.
My Lords, does the noble Lord share my concern that, although the overall number of admissions has increased, the number of students taking physics, for example, has shown an absolute decline?
My Lords, I share the noble Lord's concern. That is a big issue facing us in the education system.
My Lords, I do not have those figures, but I will let the noble Baroness know.