The claim

“We recognise there is still enormous pent-up demand for university places. That is why we are offering 10,000 extra places again this year.”
David Willetts, 14 August 2011

The background

For thousands of school-leavers, the scramble for a university place is in full swing, with a record number of prospective students chasing a smaller number of courses available through clearing.

This year has seen a surge in applications to university across the UK and a fall in the number of people who want to defer their entry until after a gap year, not surprising given that tuition fees are set to rise threefold from next year.

But the Universities Minister, David Willetts, insists the number of university places available is adequate to cope with the surge in demand.

Earlier this week he said “we are offering 10,000 extra places again this year”. And on  Thursday he said: “What we’ve tried to do, as our bit to easing the stress, is we have delivered again the 10,000 extra places we delivered last year, so there will be once again a record number of places at universities for young people.”

The analysis

It’s immediately apparent that the word “extra”, as repeatedly used by the minister, is a tad misleading.

At first glance, it would appear that Mr Willetts is claiming that the Government has taken action to provide more places this year than were available last year.

However, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) clarified that the word “extra” doesn’t mean the same thing here that you and I might think it would – “more than before”.

What Mr Willetts is really saying is that university places have been maintained at the same level that they reached in 2010 – 380,000 – after the Coalition did indeed announce funding for an “extra” 10,000 places above the 2009 figure.

So what the minister means is that the Coalition raised the number in 2010, and they haven’t lowered it this year.

And there is no new money on offer.

When the minister says “we have delivered again the 10,000 extra places we delivered last year”, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Government has taken some kind of action this year to ensure that universities can afford to offer these places.

In fact, while a lump sum of £132m was paid to universities last year to fund the additional places in 2010/11, that was a one-off, with education institutions expected to bankroll extra places in subsequent years by finding “efficiency savings”.

And it’s worth remembering that the cash injection was an idea that Labour came up with in 2009. Except Gordon Brown wanted to spend £270m on 20,000 new places. The Coalition halved that number.

And of course funding for universities overall has been cut, with BIS reducing its total funding for higher education institutions in England from from £9.8bn in 2010/11 to £9.2bn in the current financial year.

So while ministers still expect universities to offer the same number of places they offered last year, they’re not giving them any more money to pay for the extra capacity. In fact, they’re giving them significantly less funding overall.

A BIS spokesman did point out that the department will still be picking up the additional costs  for supporting those “extra” 10,000 students such as maintenance grants where applicable or enrolling them in the student loans scheme, even if it doesn’t pay for their courses.

A spokesman said: “We could have been looking at a 10,000 reduction this year. Instead we have continued with the 10,000 additional numbers.”

There’s a good reason why the Government has decided to not to reverse the 2010 addition of 10,000 university places. In the words of David Willetts: “There is still enormous pent-up demand for university places.”

There is evidence emerging of a clear nationwide trend of fewer places for more applicants, although the full extent of the squeeze in England – the part of the UK where Westminster is in direct control of funding – won’t be FactCheckable for some time.

It’s difficult to compare like with like on how many students are chasing how many places right now, due to the way the various sets of figures are compiled and the rapidly-changing situation as clearing continues.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England agrees with the Government that there are 380,000 full-time undergraduate places available at English universities for students from the UK or EU.

Ucas can’t provide directly comparable stats. What their latest UK-wide figures show is that 681,593 students have applied for course so far this year, compared to 673,098 last year.

And on Thursday lunchtime, there were 189,992 students eligible for clearing, compared to 185,223 at the same time last year, while the number of courses with vacancies was 29,409 – down from 33,105 last year.

The verdict

Mr Willetts has been raising eyebrows across the higher education sector this week with his talk of 10,000 extra places.

Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of the university think tank million+, said: “There are not more places available in 2011 than there were in 2010, and in 2010 there were 10,000 fewer places available than Labour had intended.

“And there are fewer places available in clearing than there were last year but more applicants.”

For Mr Willetts to turn what is effectively a situation where Government cuts are squeezing universities and students into a positive story about “extra places” seems like a piece of spin worthy of a Fiction rating on the FactCheckometer.

By Patrick Worrall

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