Reality check: have the middle classes been squeezed out of university? (UK)

Applications are down, and it seems the biggest falls are in the numbers of those from squeezed middle-class families. The official figures on university application figures for 2012, released by the official monitoring body, Ucas, show an overall year-on-year drop of 8.7%. Detail in the breakdown has been used to suggest that the fall is the latest example of the “squeezed middle” – and that applications from middle-class families have fallen the most.

In an article headlined Middle class priced out of university by soaring tuition fees as applications fall by nearly 10%, the Daily Mail writes:

  • According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the proportion of youngsters applying from the wealthiest fifth of the country dropped 2.5 percentage points – a fall of 3,000.
  • These families live in postcodes that are most likely to send children to university. Their likely average gross household income is around £80,000.
  • The proportion of applicants from middle-earning families dropped by about one percentage point.
  • In contrast, the percentage of pupils applying from the poorest fifth of England dipped just 0.2 points – around 280 students.
  • These families live in postcodes least likely to send children to university, with a likely average income of £11,800-a-year.

The Guardian’s Datablog obtained the statistics behind these claims. At the first reading, the figures support the idea that middle-class families are hardest hit: applications from the richest 20% of household have dropped 2.5 percentage points; the next-richest group is down 2.1 points, while applications from the poorest families are down just 0.1 percentage points. Given one of the rationales of the new £9,000 tuition fees is enabling universities to offer larger bursaries and other financial support for students from poorer backgrounds, these early figures seem encouraging. But there are some caveats. The first is that far fewer students from the poorest backgrounds applied to university even before higher fees: more than half of the richest students apply, while fewer than one in five of the poorest do. Even children from those families in the middle of the income curve are around 75% more likely than those at the bottom to apply to university. It is possible that this relatively small “core” of students is less likely to be dissuaded from university application than the larger pool of wealthier students.

A more significant note is that Ucas has released this deprivation analysis only for 18-year-old students. This group now makes up fewer than half of all university applicants, and experienced a far smaller fall in applications than others did. Application from 18-year-olds fell 2.6% year on year, versus 12.6% for 19-year-olds and 11.4% for those aged 20. Applications from those aged 25 or over fell by over 10%. These groups were more able than those aged under 18 to apply to university earlier (by not taking a gap year, for example) in order to avoid tuition fees, so the drops may prove to be a one-year blip. But at present, we have no evidence on the demographics of the majority of those applying to university.

UCAS say that the breakdown of applicant by demographic group has only been done for 18-year-olds, and is not available at present for older students (this will be published for successful applicants later in the year). The reason for confining the analysis to this group was because “generally applicants in this category will not have had a previous opportunity to apply to higher education”, according to a spokesman – in other words, this group was largely unable to apply early to university to avoid fees. It is worth noting, however, that the relative attractiveness of university to school leavers may be affected by the high rate of youth unemployment and consequent difficulty in finding jobs. UCAS’ deprivation statistic is also more complex than many: the groups it cites, which most media outlets (fairly reasonably) approximated to income groups, are not sorted by wealth. Instead, their analysis uses what’s known as the POLAR2 methodology.  This sorts areas into five groups based on the proportion of young people in that region who enter higher education. While this correlates with income or class, it obviously is not the same thing as grouping by wealth.
Some other groups who produce statistics on higher education use different methodologies. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), for example, uses a measure based on social class, using parents’ occupation.

Unfortunately the results by this measure might take a while. The latest HESA data available dates from 2009/10 – with the 2011/12 figures not due until February 2013.
It would make a great deal of sense for middle classes to be the hardest hit by higher tuition fees: those from poorer backgrounds receive substantial bursaries, which don’t completely disappear until the household income exceeds around £43,000. The richest are more able to soak up higher costs.
However, the short and unsatisfying answer on whether this is what’s happened in reality, but right now we don’t know.
Worse still, it could be a long while until we do.

Source: Guardian Higher education