Universities "should take pupil"s race into account" to help poorer students gain places

University applications plummet for second year running as 40,000 fewer pupils apply since introduction of 9,000 a year fees

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On the decline: The number of applicants from England has fallen 14.2 per cent in two years following the imposition of higher charges

The fees hike led to a sharp drop in applications last year but universities hoped numbers would soon rally.

The latest figures, which show a further 6.5 per cent decline between 2012 and 2013, triggered renewed claims that fees are dampening demand for higher education.

But the Government and universities insisted it was too early to say definitively whether demand had dropped again.

As many as half of candidates have not yet submitted their forms, according to trends seen in previous application cycles, it was claimed.

But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned that Britain risked being left behind economic competitors because the fees regime was putting youngsters off higher education.

‘We are witnessing a worrying trend of fewer people applying to university, particularly among young people,’ she said.

‘We need our brightest people pursuing their dreams. We simply cannot afford to fall behind other countries that are seeing a rise in the number of students and graduates.’

New regime: Students applying to start university this year will be the second cohort to face the new fees which amount to 9,000-a-year

New regime: Students applying to start university this year will be the second cohort to face the new fees which amount to 9,000-a-year

Under reforms which took effect in September 2012, universities in England can charge up to 9,000-a-year in fees, with students able to take out Government-backed loans to cover the cost and repay them once they are earning 21,000-a-year.

Universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can also charge 9,000-a-year but the three devolved administrations made arrangements to cushion the impact on their own students.

Scottish students receive free tuition while those in Wales qualify for subsidies to cover the difference between the old and new fee levels, wherever in the UK they study. Northern Irish students receive fee subsidies if they choose to study within the province.

Figures released yesterday by the UCAS admissions service show that as of December 17, 303,861 applicants, including overseas students, had submitted forms – more than 18,000 down on last year.

Among students from England alone, applications dropped 6.5 per cent, or 16,000.

Excluding mature applicants, the number of English 18-year-old school-leavers applying for degree places has dipped 6.6 per cent.

This is more than three times the drop seen among Scottish applicants, who put in 2.1 per cent fewer applications.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union said: 'We need our brightest people pursuing their dreams.'

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union said: 'We need our brightest people pursuing their dreams.'

But the decline in demand was sharpest among Welsh students, who made 10.9 per cent fewer applications.

According to analysis by the UCU, the number of 18-year-old English applicants is down 9.0 per cent between 2011 and 2013 – far exceeding the estimated 2.3 per cent reduction in the overall population of 18-year-olds over the two-year period.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, representing 24 leading universities, said: ‘It’s likely that around 40 per cent of students have yet to apply so let’s not jump the gun – it’s still too early in the year to say what the overall applications numbers will be.

‘It’s only right that prospective students are taking their time deciding which universities to apply to and making use of all the information available to them.

‘Going to a good university remains a sound investment for the vast majority.’ A spokesman for the Department for Business said: ‘It is too early to form a definitive picture about university applications for the 2013/14 academic year.’