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Are less students going to University?

Image: The Yorker
Image: The Yorker
Image: The Yorker

As today’s statistics from UCAS (The Universities and College Admissions Service) show, less students this year have taken up places at universities, despite a rise in the top level of A level grades. UCAS claim a fall by 1 per cent in students taking up places. Amidst angst over tuition fees, changes in A level structures, the lack of diversity in top UK universities and the impact of education on young people’s mental health – no wonder young people are possibly looking to other options post A level education.

Today’s array of statistics suggest that the amount of students receiving A*-A grade A levels has increased to 26.4 per cent, the highest in six years. Although this is a cause for some celebration, statistics also suggest that the number of students passing their A levels (receiving A*-E grades) has declined to hit an eight year low. In 2010 the A Level pass rate was 97.9 per cent, compared to today’s 97.6 per cent. 2018 is the second year for students taking the newly reformed A Level courses, with a move away from the coursework structure.

Statistics aside, it is possible that less young people are opting to go to university for a number of reasons.

Tuition fees & cost of living

With the average graduate expected to leave a three-year university course with £57,000 worth of debt looming over them, it is no wonder that students are considering immediate full-time employment after thirteen years of compulsory education. Even though loan re-payment does not begin until you are earning over £25,000 and if the full amount has not been paid back within 30 years it is written off – many students worry about the prospect of being so young in so much debt. Additionally, maintenance loans are another form of re-payment that graduates will have to pay back, as well as any outstanding student overdrafts. Despite loan re-payment being such a gradual and small amount once in employment, it seems it is the very idea which is enough to put students off going to university. Cost of living for potential students is also a major concern – with rip off landlords and rent deposits due outside of student loan payments, rising food prices and travel, students even on the maximum maintenance loan struggle to make ends meet.  More recently, in this years wave of UCU (University and College Union) strikes affecting most campuses across the UK, the question over university education’s value for money is at the forefront of many minds. These apparent anxieties, fuel a considerable amount of social stagnation in university campuses across the UK and may be influencing opinions of higher education.

Education & mental health

A growing (but not yet satisfactory) awareness of mental health amongst young people may be contributing to the decline of students going to university. Students in the UK now have thirteen years of compulsory education and spend the freest times of their lives endowed with the endless stress of assessments, coursework and exams. With the new A Level structures rolled out two years ago, it is unquestionable that this has had an impact on some students’ mental health. Geoffrey Barton, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ACSL) told The Independent:


“The sheer weight of these reforms has placed an intolerable additional strain on staff and students and we have no doubt that this has affected the mental health and wellbeing of a proportion of young people and teachers.

“The government must pay heed and ensure that any future reforms are introduced in a more manageable and considered manner.”


Universities themselves like to claim they have awareness of the stresses of university life and have adequate support networks in place for students, but often they do not deliver for one reason or other. For many, the stresses and pressures of academic university life are not worth the strain on their mental health after many years of education. A considerably more amount needs to be invested both nationally, and within universities to provide better academic and mental health support whilst studying.


This year in particular, many top universities have come under fire for appalling levels of diversity, in particular, Oxbridge. However, most universities can admit to feeling guilty about their admission rates. Plenty of universities fall short on maintaining a socially and ethnically diverse student community which may have resulted in students being put off in attending one. In an investigation conducted by the Labour Party, it was found that the current government had failed to increase disadvantaged access to Russell Group universities since 2010. Imperial College London (part of the Russell Group) only accepted 60 students from areas where students traditionally did not go on to higher education, falling to 50 in 2018. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron had previously set a target in 2010 to double the proportion of disadvantaged students attending universities by 2020. Published figures earlier on in the year revealed that some Cambridge universities had accepted zero or as few as one, black students between 2012-16. The worst for diversity was in Oxford where Corpus Christi admitted just one black student in three years, despite numerable applications. Additionally, universities do not just fall short of creating diversity within the student body, but also with academic staff. In a 2017 study by Equality in Higher Education, found that not even 1 per cent of professors were black. Despite the common positive rhetoric deployed by many universities, a consistent and increased effort needs to be made to improve diversity in all areas.

Stormzy (Rapper) has announced today his ‘Stormzy Scholarship’ for the University of Cambridge, which will fund tuition fees and a maintenance grant for four years of university education. Stormzy has stated he will be funding two students this year, and two for 2019. His actions are a direct response to the lack of action deployed by the University of Cambridge in relation to the admission of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) students. Stormzy told The Metro:


“We’re a minority, the playing ground isn’t level for us and it’s vital that all potential students are given the same opportunity.”


Although UCAS figures from 2017 show that the UK achieved the highest percentage of eighteen year olds attending university, figures show 32.5 per cent entered higher education last year – these important indicators of reluctance shine a light on the many improvements that need to take place within UK universities. To increase student numbers universities should ensure that they are maintaining a constant effort to improve access, diversity, service and education. University needs to be less about profitable economics, and more about experience and access. Additionally, the government need to re-assess the student loan system due to its damaging impact on morale and the prospect of further education for young people.


Edited: 22.08.18