Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 17:25 UK

Tuition fees: really a deterrent?

By Seonag MacKinnon
BBC Scotland education correspondent

Generic student with degree
The number of students in England has continued to rise

Scotland has long been proud of its high numbers going into higher education. It is seen as a sign of a successful education system going back centuries.

Loud were the cheers at the turn of the millennium when a record 54% of young Scots took up places.

But in the space of seven years the level has slumped back to 43%.

Looking at the figure for the year to 2007-08, which includes older students and those from outside Scotland, we see numbers here down 2.5% to 273,000 while increasing by 0.5% in England.

Looking at applicants from Scotland alone during this period the dip is greater - down 3.6%.

And the dip was pronounced too - 3.4% - among those pursuing their higher education courses at colleges.

The figures are puzzling since Scotland hasn't followed England in bringing in hefty tuition fees of over £3,000 a year. It begs the question whether the hated fees are a deterrent after all.

Robust research

Could it be students think fees are manageable as they only have to start paying them after graduation when they are earning £15,000?

Could it be buoyant applications in England indicate universities are dominated by students from reasonably well-off backgrounds who don't find fees insurmountable?

Could it be the Westminster government has a generous enough provision of grants to ensure those from disadvantaged backgrounds aren't deterred by fees?

Conclusions are hazardous. The National Union of Students says there is a lack of robust research on the impact of fees and grants on university applications.

Scottish Conservatives are persuaded the figures undermine the government's claim that free education boosts participation in higher education.

The Scottish government pointed out the figures relate to a period before they came to power.

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