UNIVERSITY applications by students in Halton have plunged by 20% since tuition fees were trebled, new figures have revealed.
Labour MP Derek Twigg believes young people in Runcorn and Widnes are turning their backs on higher education after the annual cost soared to almost £9,000 for most courses that started last month.
This year just 2,989 Halton residents applied for a place on a degree course, down from 3,718 in 2011, the second largest drop off in the North West, second only to Liverpool Wavertree.
Mr Twigg says the figures, released by the University And Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), justify why he voted against the higher fees in 2010.
He said: “This is a massive decline and really bad news for Halton.
“Clearly the option of going to university has been taken away from many people because of the level of debt they face when they graduate.
“In Halton the number of people going to university has historically been lower than the national average.
“So to see such a huge drop-off on already low figures is really quite worrying.
“Schools and colleges in the borough are doing all they can to prepare people for university but it is appears that cost is proving a major deterrent.”
But the department for business (BIS) insisted the fall had nothing to do with rocketing fees, which had made the funding system ‘fairer and more progressive’.
Of 24 constituencies in Merseyside, North Cheshire and West Lancashire, all registered a fall in applications – although in Liverpool Riverside, the total dropped by just 14 bids.
Young people from middle-class homes also appear to be turning their backs on higher education in numbers as large as their peers from less prosperous backgrounds.
The figures were published ahead of a major student demonstration at Westminster on Wednesday, the first since a series of violent protests when the bill which hiked up fees was passed in 2010.
Liam Burns, president of the national union of students, said: “Families across the country are seeing their dreams of going to university disappear before their eyes.”
Most universities are charging close to £9,000 a year for courses, not the £6,000 predicted by ministers, after state funding for higher education was slashed.
But Whitehall sources said the 2011 total had been artificially inflated by students taking up places immediately – rather than taking gap years – to avoid higher fees in 2012.
And a BIS spokesman said: “Most students will not pay up front to study.
“There are more generous loans, grants and bursaries available for those poorer families, and loans are only repaid once graduates have jobs and are earning over £21,000.”