Students enjoying a campus event - but is the University struggling to attract potential students?

The University of Sussex is falling behind its competitors in appealing to potential students, latest figures have revealed. An internal report shows that applications for undergraduate degrees have declined by three times the national average in 2008.

Undergraduate applications to the University have fallen 21% between 2007 and 2008 compared with a national average of minus 7%. In total 13,129 undergraduates applied to the University in 2008, compared with 16,604 in 2007. Worryingly, some of the subjects that Sussex has previously excelled in have been the biggest losers. Applications to the traditionally well-respected English course are down 32% and physics and biochemistry have suffered by 39% and 26% respectively. In an ironic twist the only course that had improved application numbers, up by 5%, was chemistry, a course which had been threatened with closure a few years ago.

The lower applications have not been evenly distributed across the University schools either. HUMs (the School of Humanities) has suffered the worst of the departments, with applications down 28% while SOCCUL (School of Social Sciences & Cultural Studies) fared best with only a 14% decline.
The reasons for this decline are disputed. Adam Farrell, the Student Union’s education officer, declared “Sussex is losing its image of doing things differently. The governance and ethos of a university echoes far. As the university becomes more generic in its practice and presentation, its appeal decreases.”
But the University has disputed that the figures represent a major challenge to funding. In a statement yesterday the University said “applications to Sussex grew by over 50% between 2001 and 2007, and applications for 2008 were still well above 2001 levels.” The statement also cited changes to the UCAS system which reduced the number of Universities that applicants can apply to from six to five. Farrell pointed out that the statement failed to address the issue of relative decline compared to universities of a similar standard.

Particularly ominous for the management of Sussex is the fall in applications from the higher fee-paying international students, down 30% from the previous year. The report begins with a warning that “failure to achieve the recruitment targets will impact on the 2008/09 budget and on plans for further growth.” Another recent report declared that “International student tuition fees are one of the few areas where neither the price nor number of students admitted is controlled by the government and hence represents one of the few sources of additional discretionary income.” The University has recently committed to expanding revenue from international students from £8m a year to £17m by 2015. This has caused fears of budgetary gaps if these figures continue.

Dan Vockins, former USSU president, declared that there may be more serious structural causes for the fall in international students that the University has failed to take into account. He argued “it may be the case that in the emerging economies of India and China the academic institutions they have created are improving their reputations. Therefore the need to travel abroad to study is declining.” He points out that if the trends of lower applications from international students continue then the budgetary gaps created would ultimately affect the quality of education the University could offer.

The University has disputed the accusations of potential financial problems from falling numbers in international students: “The international market for students is, of course, very competitive but the indication on overseas undergraduate numbers is that admissions will be in line with targets and above numbers admitted last year.”

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