Interim data, colourful metaphors

Blwyddyn newydd dda!

A happy new year to you all and I'm delighted to see that the Christmas greeting in the last blog of 2012 caused the now almost annual rumpus. Plus ca change, eh? If you pardon yet more bilingualism!

To kick off 2013: A fundamental aspect of education policy that is posing a challenge for the Welsh government, hand-in-hand with the sort of statistics that Sir Humphrey would describe as "difficult".

Those figures point to a considerable fall in the number of pupils from Wales applying to university in 2013 - not pupils applying to universities in Wales but Welsh pupils applying to study at university. The "difficult" bit is that, so far, the fall appears to be far greater among pupils here than elsewhere in the UK.

Why? When students from Wales are shielded from tuition fees over some £3,500 thanks to the Welsh government's subsidy - a generous, expensive subsidy that is not on offer to students living in England?

Yes, this is "early data" as the Welsh government points out. The information was gathered in December and is already out of date.

Yes, there may still be a late surge before the deadline in the middle of the month, but then you'd imagine the same is true of England and Scotland. There too, there are falls in applications but nowhere is the drop as striking as in Wales. Here the fall is 11.7% - nearly double that in England at 6.3% and in a different league to the fall in Scotland of 3.9%. There's a slight increase in Northern Ireland.

Yes, it's bang on to say that the final figures last year - the first year of higher tuition fees - confirmed a drop of just 1.9% in applications amongst pupils in Wales wanting to go on to higher education, a far smaller fall than in England. But if the body representing higher education institutions in Wales saw then a sign the "good deal on offer in Wales" was getting through to pupils, what are they seeing now?

And yes, you can point - as the Welsh union representing teachers and lecturers has done - to "pretty savvy" youngsters who these days more than ever weigh up the qualification versus the debt. But again, wouldn't that be true of young people in all parts of the UK? And on the face of it, isn't that calculation even less attractive in England, where there's no such subsidy and therefore, a prospect of far greater debt?

The final count in a few weeks' time may close the gap between the four nations and the National Union of Students is spot on in pointing out that while an 11.7% fall sounds gargantuan, the drop in applications actually amounts to 1,500 pupils deciding against going into higher education. Suddenly that sounds rather less dramatic.

All those who've said that it's too early to come to any firm conclusions are bang on the money too.

All the same, the Welsh government will be acutely aware that the whole point of digging deep into the public purse to offer financial support to students was to prevent bright young Welsh pupils being put off going to college. These figures say they are being put off - and more so here than anywhere else.

The Conservatives' Angela Burns, is never short of a metaphor or two and the shadow education minister is no fan of the Labour government's policy on student fees. In the past she's likened it to a "runaway train lugging bags of public money" and "a half-baked scheme balanced precariously on the cross-border flow of students".

Today she keeps it relatively simple and claims that - if today's figures turn out be anything like accurate - the Welsh government's flagship subsidy policy is "in tatters".

If the figures turn out to be accurate - if - there will certainly be more colourful metaphors to come and some tough reasoning to be done.