A SNAPSHOT of university applications across the UK has suggested there could be a drop in the number of Scottish students applying for university this year, despite the fact they alone will not be paying tuition fees after graduating.
Figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) yesterday revealed a 3.9 per cent fall in the number of Scottish applications compared to this time last year.
The drop is smaller than in England and Wales, where falls in applications are 6.3 per cent and 11.7 per cent respectively.
University chiefs also said the figures were only preliminary estimates and may be revised upwards once all students have put their applications through.
But lecturers in Scotland said last night the small drop was “concerning”, and urged ministers to do more to promote a university degree to students.
Across the UK, they warned that English students were now being put off by the thought of having to pay for tuition fees after graduation.
The figures are up to date only until December, a month before the final deadline for all applications to be sent in to Ucas.
For Scotland, the figures show that 14,052 students had applied, down from 14,617 in 2011.
That 3.9 per cent fall compares to a drop of 0.8 per cent in 2011.
However, the latest drop was dwarfed by the fall in numbers elsewhere in the UK. In England, numbers of applications fell from 245,882 to 229,932. In Wales, where fees this year are up to £9,000 a year, the applications have fallen even more steeply from 12,701 to 11,218.
Opposition to tuition fees for Scottish students has been a flagship policy of the SNP administration. Students in England, including those who come north of the Border to study, face annual fees of £9,000 for three- or four-year degrees.
The figures also show a slight drop among other European Union students, with applications down 1.9 per cent.
But the number of overseas students from outside the EU hoping to study at UK universities this autumn has risen by 0.8 per cent, the statistics show.
Alastair Sim, the chief executive of Universities Scotland, said figures for Scotland should be treated with caution, as students would still be making applications up until the 15 January deadline. The December figures only show about a half of the total number of applications.
Mr Sim said: “These statistics give only a partial view of applications because many applicants will not have completed applications as yet. We will be in a much better position to assess trends after the 15 January deadline for applications has passed and I would therefore hesitate to rush to conclusions now.”
Deborah Shepherd, of the University and College Union (UCU) in Scotland, which represents academics and lecturers, said: “It is too early to diagnose a definite drop in applications.
“However, the predicted drop is concerning to UCU Scotland, and we’d encourage the Scottish Government to do everything it can to promote the benefits of higher education to the people of Scotland and school and college leavers.”
Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, added: “Although right now Scotland is showing almost half the drop in applications as in England, it would be concerning to see a significant fall in the final application numbers.”
A Scottish Government spokesman compared the slight drop in Scotland with the bigger falls across the UK.
He said: “Today’s figures suggest that applications from Scotland remain resilient compared to other parts of the UK, although the mid-December snapshot remains early days.”
He also said that the fall in numbers may be partly explained by the fact that last year students were encouraged to post applications early to avoid the weather-related delays in processing applications which hit the country in 2010.
University unions elsewhere in the UK warned that the policy of tuition fees was putting off students from applying.
Sally Hunt, general-secretary of UCU, said: “The bottom line is that hiking up the cost is likely to have an impact on people’s decisions when it comes to further study.”
However, Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, which represents a group of the UK’s top universities, said: “Going to a good university remains a sound investment for the vast majority.
“Most graduates earn a considerable salary premium over those with two A-levels, and Russell Group graduates typically receive a 10 per cent salary top-up over those who went to a modern university.”