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Friday, August 20, 2010 / Duncan Forgan

Not Even A Graph Makes Me Feel Better about UCAS Statistics


I tend to be quite cynical about certain things – if they’re reported in newspapers with inappropriately fear-inducing headlines or gloomy prose, alarm bells ring in my head, the red mist descends and I grumble something about the Daily Mail.  The news that 150,000 students will miss out on university places in the UK this year is the latest article to set off the aforementioned bilge buzzer.  Of course, as a scientist there is only one appropriate response: make graphs.

I made this plot using publicly available data from UCAS (the organisation which centrally organises applications by students to higher education), comparing how many applications were made versus how many were accepted.  Subtracting one from the other gives the total number of unaccepted applications going through the system each year.

A few caveats – this data only considers applications originating in the UK, and includes all institutions handled by UCAS (which includes FE Colleges as well as universities).

A reckless application of causation from correlation suggests that the number of students unable to get a place is related to the state of the economy.  The turn of the century brought in happier economic times (when deregulation was the word and people wiped their bottoms with credit), and university was not needed as a safe haven.  I shamefully note I applied to UCAS in 2002, the local minimum of the graph – that probably explains a lot.

The following years saw New Labour encourage up to 50% of the population to go to university, which prompted the turnaround in the mid-Noughties.  Then comes 2008, and the global economy went to pot (and nationalisation wasn’t the word, but it happened anyway, and people returned to wiping their bottoms with discount toilet paper).  Without a stable job market, it is far easier to take refuge in the education system, with the hope that your degree will help your efforts in a few years time.  Having sat between 70,000 and 90,000 for over a decade, the rejected applications then rises precipitously to 120,000 in just one year.

Sadly, data for 2010 is not yet available – if the 150,000 figure is correct (and it’s probably close), then the picture is worrying indeed.  We don’t have information for before 1996, but I find it unlikely that the statistics for that period are anywhere near as bad as they are now.  Despite the number of students enrolled in higher education increasing year on year, supply is outstripping demand at an alarming rate – and if the cause is the current economic melee, then there’s not an end in sight.

For once, the scaremongers in the media have it pretty much right.  Balls.

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