HUGE drops in the number of North East students applying to go to university have been recorded since the introduction of increased tuition fees, new figures show.
All but one parliamentary constituency in the region saw a fall after the introduction of £9,000 fees, with North Tyneside showing the biggest drop in the country at 23%.
South Shields, Washington and Sunderland West, Newcastle North and Blyth Valley were also in the 20 constituencies with the highest drop-off.
MPs and school leaders have expressed alarm at the figures, saying the Government needs to do more to reverse the North East’s poor record for getting young people into higher education.
But ministers have defended the new fees system, saying more support is available to students than ever.
Mary Glindon, the Labour MP for North Tyneside, said she was shocked and saddened by the fall in university applications.
“I think the North East has been disproportionately affected by this government as a whole,” she said.
Ms Glindon, who was the first in her family to go to university, said the hike in tuition fees was unlikely to be the only economic factor putting prospective students off.
“It may be a reflection of the Education Maintenance Allowance being cut, so people can’t study beyond 16, let alone to university,” she said. “It’s bad enough even before the burden of fees.”
She advised students who wanted to go on to higher education to “do it, even if you’re from a background where there’s not much money.”
Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West and a shadow education minister, said the coalition was taking away opportunities from students in the region. “These figures demonstrate how the Tory-led government is kicking away the ladders for young people in my constituency and across the North East,” she said.
But a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills played down the drop.
“Few students took a gap year in 2011, so there has been a fall in deferred entries,” they said.
“Most new students will not pay upfront for their tuition, there is a more generous financial support available and graduates will not start paying back their loans until they are in well-paid jobs.”
Constituencies across the UK have shown a drop in the number of people applying to universities, with only 22 out of 533 remaining the same or showing a rise.
The figures were released following a parliamentary question by Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West.
David Pearmain, the chair of Schools North East, said their was a problem of perception around the increased tuition fees.
“For the poorest families, the problem is one of perception,” he said. “What the Government didn’t do at all well was explaining the rises to families, and how they do not need to pay up front.”
He said the drop in applications was worrying.
“It’s the most important contribution you can make to your future,” he advised prospective students.