Although many attributed the fall in the number of undergraduates entering British universities this year to the recent, well-publicized tuition hike, according to the Times Higher Education, the real reasons might be more complex. It appears that this year, more than in any other recent year, schools in England were competing for the smaller pool of excellent applicants, placing them in a situation of "putting all their eggs in one basket."
Data shows that the number of students starting their university education in the UK this year fell by more than 50,000 from the year before. England's universities accounted for almost all of that drop. Experts have connected roughly half of that loss to a larger number of students skipping a gap year last year in order to take advantage of lower tuition fees.
Yet even with those students taken out of the equation there still remains nearly a 6% drop.
It suggests that the lower numbers may have been caused by changes in the way universities made offers to students rather than falling application levels, as institutions concentrated on the top students.
Of the 1.2 million offers made by higher education institutions, 42 per cent (up from 37 per cent the previous year) were made to applicants with offers from every one of the five universities they had applied to.
In these situations, each school has less than a 20% chance of being chosen by their accepted applicants. In comparison, candidates who are accepted by only one school take them up on their offer about 70% of the time.
Mark Corver, head of analysis and research at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), the British admission service for students applying to university and college, said that in addition to there being fewer applicants, schools themselves extended invitation to a substantially smaller number of students. He explained the phenomenon as "a greater concentration of offers to the same candidates."
With more offers to those with the best predicted grades, the number of people receiving no offers at all – 40,000 in total – remained high. The focus on the same students is likely to have led to 26,000 fewer acceptances, according to Ucas' analysis, roughly corresponding to the 27,000 fall for 2012-13.
The change in offer behaviour is likely to be linked by some in the sector to the introduction of a market for top students, with universities allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of undergraduates gaining at least AAB at A level or the equivalent.
The universities weren't the only ones being more selective. Students themselves seemed much more reluctant to accept an offer from their "safety" school after their first choice turned them down. Those who took up places offered them via the "insurance" period also fell by more than 25%.