Where Have All the Students Gone?

16/08/2012 11:50 BST | Updated 15/10/2012 10:12 BST

As the annual debacle over A-level results begins, it is clear that one outcome will be fewer students going on to study in UK universities this year. Applications are down overall, with fewer students expected to accept places through clearing this week and more students going abroad to study. But does this mean that young people don't value a University education? I'm not so sure.

The first question that might be asked is about the purpose of university. It is a sad reflection of the economic climate that many good graduates from this July and before are still out of work, or in low paid jobs not deemed to be graduate level. Recent scandals about internships and unpaid work experience have been unhelpful in demonstrating the value of a degree in the quest to find a good well paid job. Yet the fact remains that in this year's Office for National Statistics survey, graduates in gradate level jobs have a median wage nearly twice that of non graduates. In addition many public sector employment routes are now dominated by graduates, in the Health Service, social services and education. There are frequent complaints from employers that the UK education system does not prepare youngsters for the word of work, but with the variety and scope of jobs changing so rapidly, all the education system can do is to send students out in to the workforce, literate, numerate, technology savvy and willing to learn. The best of UK education, and higher education in particular, does this very well and I don't believe that graduate employment prospects is responsible alone for the falling numbers of University applications.

The vast majority of students are happy with their universities, both in terms of their academic experience and their social life. Although complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator have risen in recent years, so has student satisfaction measured by the National Student Survey, with over 80% of student happy with their experience when surveyed in their final year. It seems for many three years living and studying away from home is an enjoyable experience. So why are applications and numbers going through clearing down this year?

This September marks the first academic year in which students can be charged the full cost of their degree - up to £9,000 a year. This means that for a degree at a top university, plus learning resources and the cost of living away from home, students, or their parents, might be faced with a bill of well over £60,000 over three years. Some students are mitigating this by living at home or by electing to study at a University with lower fees (and often lower status). At the other end of the scale many top universities are offering fee-waivers and bursaries to high performing students they want to attract. Now the government have change the way places are allocated to universities, those achieving grades better than AAB this year will have a wider choice than ever. But with this great opportunity come great uncertainty, and in higher education many of us feel like we are guinea pigs in a large scale experiment with the future of higher education, unsure of numbers of students we might expect and unable to plan for them.

Perhaps this year's students are just delaying, waiting to see what happens in the new fees regime, hoping the economic downturn will improve along with graduate employment prospects, or exploring studying abroad. I wish I could offer them a concrete guarantee of a good time at university, a good degree and a good job, but I can't. All I can do is congratulate their efforts with their studies so far, hope they get the grades they need and urge them to give university a try.