Latest UCAS figures: doom and gloom or changing trends?

As expected, UCAS’s latest figures show a decline in the numbers of people applying for spots at UK universities. The headline figure is a drop of 7.4% from 2011: a significant number but – truth be told – most of us probably expected it to be far worse.


It’s hard to draw any solid conclusions from this year’s fall because it comes against such a complicated backdrop: a recession that keeps on keeping on, the dramatic rise in tuition fees, and the huge surge in 2011 applications. Many in the industry feel that a more accurate comparison isn’t with 2011’s numbers, but with 2010’s. Against that measure, maybe the drop isn’t very significant at all. The other difficulty is that, while the figures show broader application patterns, they don’t really tell us anything about what students are applying for, and why. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students are being drawn towards vocationally focused degrees and away from traditional – but arguably less employable – disciplines like the Humanities and Fine Arts.


So the truth is we don’t really know where we stand at the moment. But in the midst of this murkiness, there is a bright light: one of our partner institutions, Huddersfield University. This year, Huddersfield’s applications are up 5% on 2011’s numbers. And compared to the more reliable 2010 figures, applications have surged a huge 26%. So what are they doing differently?


Huddersfield’s success is down to a number of factors. First, they score well in all the traditional measures: according to the Sunday Times rankings, they’re a Top 10 university in teaching excellence, student satisfaction and graduate employment rates. But more recent developments are really separating them from the pack. For example, Huddersfield prides itself on its “fair fees”: at less than £8,000 per year, it charges less than any other university in the top half of the Times League Table. It has also embraced social media, integrating tools like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube into its fresh, well-designed – and thoroughly un-institutional – website. It has also been prepared to adapt its portfolio of programmes to meet the shifting demands of students. So even if we’re no closer to understanding how university application rates will change in the long-term, Huddersfield’s example at least shows us that it, in such an uncertain world, adaptability is likely to be a key to success.


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