UCAS figures released last week revealed that 160,000 applicants failed to achieve places at UK universities in 2009.
481,854 students were accepted into universities, representing a 5.5% increase on the previous year. However, this did not match a 10% increase in the number of applicants, a trend thought to be triggered in part by the recession.
In the summer the UK Government made the decision to cap numbers of students attending UK universities by allowing an increase of only 13,000 students. It is thought that universities have exceeded this figure by as much as 22,000 individuals.
Any institution found to be offering more places that the limits set by the Government faces a fine of up to £4,000 per student. The total fine may be a multi-million pound figure.
The Government has faced criticism from the University and College Union (UCU) over this policy.
Speaking to the Guardian, the UCU’s general secretary commented, “It is a bit rich of the government and HEFCE to trumpet the success of record student numbers, and then fine universities for being bold enough to carry out government policy to increase student numbers.”
Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, defended the policy. Speaking to the House of Lords he said that tighter budgets would “spur” universities to find other sources of funding and “focus minds” on the quality of teaching and research.
David Lammy, Higher Education Minister, speaking to the Guardian, reacted positively to the statistics, pointing out that students coming from areas of traditionally low participation in universities have shown the highest proportional increase, 8%.
Lammy argued that this, “illustrates that we are raising aspirations and widening participation in our universities.”
Lammy is supported by the government-commissioned Hills Report, published on Wednesday 27th January, which has stated that teenagers from the poorest backgrounds are now 50% more likely to go to university than they were fifteen years ago.
One of the more vociferous opponents of the policy is the NUS.
Its president, Wes Streeting, finds it “concerning that so many students with the ability to go to university were not able to as a result of the cap imposed on student numbers last year.”
Streeting is also worried about how many university places will be available next year and how many more able applicants will be left without any offers following what he describes as “swingeing cuts to the higher education budget, predictions of yet another year of record applications and a further cap imposed on student numbers.”
He believes that the situation has the potential to lead to “another student places crisis this summer.”
Streeting also has a more long-term concern over the career prospects of those who are not offered a place in higher education.
He commented, “It is surely better to bear the cost of additional university places now than to shoulder the burden of disappointment and long-term unemployment later.”