Study: UK university applicants becoming 'more selective'

A new study suggests that the introduction of higher tuition fees has made applicants choosier about the course and the university they select.

It could mean that institutions that rely heavily on the clearing process have difficulty filling their places for 2012, say researchers from SKOPE – the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at the University of Oxford.

The researchers conducted questionnaires and focus groups with 723 sixth-formers at schools and colleges in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the weeks after the UCAS deadline for 2012 entry. The responses of the Year 13 students indicate a more hard-headed approach to university than in the past. Most of those questioned said they regarded the cost of going to university as a 'significant investment' and thought it important to embark on a course only if it is perceived as 'worth it'.

Researcher Dr Hubert Ertl, from SKOPE in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, said: 'Many of the sixth-formers we questioned were not sure about the financial costs and benefits of a degree and it seems they postpone concerns about debt until later. They were clear that higher fees have increased the pressure on them to make the right decisions concerning where they invest their time and money. However, the complexity of the range of fee waivers and bursaries makes it difficult for them to compare the costs of studying at different universities.'

Although applicants for higher education courses said their subject choices were based mainly on their interests, the research also shows that many of the sixth-formers regarded a degree as essential to finding employment, even for jobs traditionally viewed as being open to 'non-graduates'.

Over three quarters (78%) of those questioned said they expected graduates to earn a higher salary than non-graduates, and this strongly influenced their decision to apply for a place at university. Only 19% of respondents who thought that graduates did earn more were not applying for higher education courses; in contrast 47% of those who did not expect graduates to get higher salaries were not applying for further study.

Four in ten school-leavers questioned said they were 'concerned' or 'very concerned' about the expected level of debt that would result from taking out a student loan to pay for their university course. Nearly half (48%) of the female sixth-formers said they were concerned about this compared with around one-quarter (27%) of male sixth-formers.

One in five of the sixth-formers questioned said they did not expect to be able to pay back all their debt. Over one-third (38%) of students said they expected they would need between 15 and 30 years to repay the debt. This concern was voiced mainly by female students, those with general concerns about student loan debts and in cases where neither parents nor siblings had gone to university.

However, financial considerations were not the main factor for all school leavers considering higher education. Only 28% said their decision about their course was based on how much they were likely to earn after graduation. Meanwhile, one-fifth of sixth-formers questioned said that they did not know or had not thought about the level of debt they would accrue as a result of going to university.

The study also finds that many students simply cannot comprehend the level of debt involved in taking out a student loan in order to take an undergraduate course at university because the amount of money involved seems so large.

Researcher Dr Helen Carasso, from SKOPE in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, said: 'All the indications are that, under the new arrangements for fees and funding, prospective undergraduates will be very selective when applying to university. This may mean fewer of them are willing to go through the clearing process and accept an offer of a course or institution that was not on their original shortlist. On the positive side, drop-out rates in the early stages of degrees could become lower.'