UCAS have published their data on applications as at the 15 January deadline. This is not the final deadline for all applications: applications continue until June and if institutions are desperate enough they will accept applications even after term has started in September, but it provides a good milestone for us to assess progress.
last post 2012 was looking pretty close to 2010. The chart shows that January 2012 was a much less active month than January 2010, so a significant gap has now opened on the 2010 numbers as at this date. Clearly the 'late surge' UCAS were talking about rather ran out of steam. Overall we are now 43,473 applicants down on 2011 - let's say a round dozen medium-sized universities' worth. However there were 208,131 unplaced applicants last year (and HEFCE have cut a further 15,000 places since then), so 43,473 fewer wouldn't of itself be a big issue.
It is worthwhile to look at the composition of the applications, though. Firstly, there has been a big fall off in mature applicants. Young applicants (18 and under) are down just 6,773. There are very sharp falls in 19-year old applicants (as you would expect, really), but also large falls in all age groups aged 20+. There are also large falls in male applicants (already a minority) and applicants from elsewhere in the EU. (non-EU applicants are well up, which will be great news if the UKBA lets them into the country...). Since the young people applying straight from school or college are also the most likely to get their applications in on time for the 15 January deadline, this also implies that the applications received after 15 January are also likely to be lower than in previous years so the 43,473 figure is likely to grow, not shrink. However it would have to grow very substantially for the brute shortage in applicants to become an issue for institutions.
We still do not know how applicants will react during Clearing. People willing to pay £9,000 for their top choice may not accept an institution they perceive as 'second best' even for £7,500 and in particular they may be unwilling to follow the core/margin numbers into FE colleges. In England, unlike Scotland, HE in FE is marginal and, if anything, has been getting increasingly marginal over recent years. Likewise, there may be difficult issues at the AAB margin, where neither institutions nor applicants really know what to expect. So although there are likely to be enough applicants to fill every SNC place in England handily, whether they will consent to be allocated to the institutions that are allowed to take them very much remains to be seen.
The gender issue also bears looking at. Most workers in HE are very conscious that the workforce - especially the senior academic and managerial workforce - is heavily tilted towards white males. The applicants and students are now very different. Fifty seven per cent of applicants are now female. UCAS haven't published an ethnicity breakdown, but unless 2012 is quite different from previous years the 'missing' men will be predominantly white men. Now the social and educational background of these two groups of white men (not to speak of their age) is very different of course. White men of the social background of HE managers and professors are well-represented in the student body.
Some of this imbalance is due to the superior non-HE options enjoyed by white working-class men in comparison with working-class women or men of other ethnicities, so it is not as straightforward a matter of HE-sector inequalities as the awards to black students, say. Nonetheless, there is an increasingly serious equalities issue developing here.