Students and lecturers say the drop in applications to university is due to the government’s tuition fees rise. But Universities Minister David Willetts, speaking to Channel 4 News, disagrees.
Ucas, the admission service for students, said the number of applicants to university courses has fallen from 76,612 students at this stage last year to 69,724 for courses starting in 2012.
Last November the government published a funding plan allowing universities to charge students tuition fees of up to £9,000 starting next September.
The previous month the Treasury announced that the teaching budget for higher education, excluding research funding, would be cut by £2.9bn, or 40 per cent, over the next four years.
Unions representing students and lecturers claimed the figures were proof the policies were scaring off potential applicants.
National Union of Students vice-president Toni Pearce said: “The indication is that the confusion caused by the Government’s botched reforms is causing young people to, at the very least, hesitate before applying to university.
“Ministers must stop tinkering around the edges of their shambolic reforms, listen to students, teachers and universities, and completely overhaul their white paper before temporary chaos turns into permanent damage to our education system.”
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Sally Hunt, general secretary for the University and College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academic staff in post-school education, said: “The Government’s fees policy has been a disaster from the start and it is clearly having a serious impact on the choices young people make.
“These depressing figures take us back to the time when it was cost, not ability, that determined your future.”
The data published follows a 15 October deadline for applications to medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses and courses at Oxford and Cambridge, but also included the number of students who have applied so far for other university courses, most of which have a 15 January application deadline.
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts claimed the figures do not reveal “underlying trends” in university applications.
He said: “It is too early in the applications cycle for data to reveal underlying trends – the main Ucas deadline is not until January.
“Going to university depends on ability, not the ability to pay. Most new students will not pay upfront, there will be more financial support for those from poorer families, and everyone will make lower loan repayments than they do now once they are in well-paid jobs.”
The figures show that the number of applicants living in the UK has gone down by almost 11.9 per cent, while applications from outside the UK went up by 1.2 per cent.
Mr Willetts told Channel 4 News that if the figures remained the same in January, after what he called the real deadline, the government would “have to have a look” at the policy, but he maintained that the policy was “right for higher education”.