Lancaster hit by declining applications

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This time last year, SCAN printed an article on Lancaster’s lack of Clearing places following a 26% rise in applications for the 2011-12 academic year, as students strove to get in before the introduction of the fee-hike affecting this year’s cohort. With the BBC reporting in July that applications across the UK were down by 8.9%, and with England recording the highest drop of 10%, it seems that 2010 applications were indeed an anomalous ‘bumper crop’. Furthermore, the BBC recently reported on the numbers of places still available at prestigious Russell Group universities.

Higher Education Minister David Willetts, speaking at the recent universities’ conference at Keele, was forced to acknowledge that this year would see fewer students beginning university this year, which he blamed partly on the fall in top grades (AAB or higher) achieved by A Level students this year. 85,000 were expected to meet this grade-threshold, but the number was closer to 80,000 when results were published in August. In addition to this, universities were allowed to recruit as many top-grade potentials as they chose, but were not allowed to increase their total volume of applicants. Universities who gambled on students’ grades and lost on Results Day inevitably ended up in deficit, having increased the proportion of places offered to AAB students, some of whom were then unable to take up their offers.

Whilst Lancaster’s own figures have yet to be collated, the fact that Clearing places were this year available long after the August Results Day, coupled with reports that campus accommodation is experiencing a deficit in room occupancies this year (as revealed by a high-ranking LUSU source), suggests that Lancaster too has been affected by this decline in applications.

Paul Groves, who oversaw last year’s admissions process, emphasised at the time that quality – rather than just quantity – played a large role in Lancaster’s lack of vacancies for Clearing. Groves also commented that “all the current indications are that Lancaster is well-placed to maintain both the level and quality of its undergraduate intake.” The question is now whether Lancaster – moving towards a strategic business agenda – placed an over-emphasis on this quality of applicants by tightening its entry grades, rather than sticking with the status quo and letting its own merits do the work in attracting high-calibre applicants.

This will do little to dispel concerns over the legitimacy of raising entry grade requirements, a decision which requires vindication through the maintenance of the student population size. The entry requirements for 2012 entry at Lancaster were raised from the previous year, with most courses stipulating candidates must achieve AAB. Lancaster is already in a delicate situation, having seen its own university ‘family’ – the 1994 Group – depleted by four members in March this year. The University now faces a difficult task in striking a balance between attracting top-grade students, who would maintain the academic reputation of the University, whilst ensuring that the entry requirements set do not exclude those who reach their academic potential further on from A Level study.

The University Press Office has been asked to provide information regarding departments’ decisions regarding their entry requirements, but as yet there has been no response. It may be that this information takes time to collate; time will tell. Last year, departmental sources in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences revealed that there had been conflict over grade requirements that were raised from the department’s own specifications. This is of critical importance because it reveals disparity in attitudes towards Lancaster’s own sense of identity. Thus in turn impacts upon the atmosphere in which Lancaster’s students are moulded academically, socially and personally. There needs to be a general consensus on how Lancaster understands its own position both within the UK and around the world.

Lancaster is at risk of embarrassment over setting its sights on a target clientele that is not wholly reliable in reciprocating fidelity. By aiming for the AAB studentship, Lancaster could end up playing second-fiddle to Oxbridge and other high-ranking Russell Group universities. Whilst no doubt holding a firm position of prestige in UK HE league-tables’ top-ten (such as those in the Guardian and Times Good University Guides), Lancaster nevertheless lacks the security of Russell Group membership.

Of course, at this point we can link neither fees nor entry requirements with cohort sizes in a reductive critique in the vein of ‘X irrefutably led to Y’. As previously mentioned, there will no doubt be a propensity to blame everything that happens over the next few years on the 9K debacle, but we must remember that the effects will not truly be seen until the best part of a decade from now. It is the long-term trend that must be carefully monitored over the next few years.

Lancaster’s city-centre accommodation appears not to be suffering following the decline in applications, which may be on account of the bulk of student tenants living off-campus being from second- and third-years, as well as postgraduates. CityBlock’s Trevor Bargh acknowledged the worry over UCAS statistics, but also pointed out that “whilst the UK acceptance figures have dropped, […] at the micro-level there is a significant variation depending on university and course.” He added, “This year has been challenging but, we believe here at CityBlock that we offer a product and service that relates well to Lancaster students.  We are full across all our rooms in Lancaster for 2012/13, including our newly opened third student block.”

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