Degree application numbers holding up in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire

Students have not been put off studying at universities in the east by big hikes in tuition fees, it was claimed last night – despite two of the region's key universities seeing a drop in application numbers.

In contrast to the national picture – and many expectations – three of the area's universities and higher education colleges, including the Norwich University College of the Arts and the College of West Anglia, have reported big year-on-year increases.

But the University of East Anglia and University Campus Suffolk (UCS) have seen their numbers decrease compared with this time in 2011, when there was a surge in applicants hoping to get in ahead of the fee rises. Last night both said their figures were up on 2010, the last stable year for applications from students under the old fee regime, which many consider a fairer comparison.

The UEA said the numbers – which are the latest available following the deadline set by admissions body UCAS – were 'as good as we could have hoped for' and showed students were willing to invest in sites with strong academic reputations and student satisfaction records.

Mark Barlow, director of admissions, said 2011 was an exceptional year for all higher education institutions, with UEA experiencing a particularly large increase of 17pc compared with 2010.

He said the university – which is down 13pc on 2011 – had never expected to maintain those levels and, in line with many others, was basing its comparison on 2010 numbers instead.

'UEA is up by 3pc compared with the 2010 figures – that's double the increase of our main competitors,' he said. 'Students are still prepared to invest in university education. It's still affordable to go to university.'

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Those views were echoed by other East of England universities and higher education colleges.

Norwich University College of the Arts has continued its rise in popularity with a 12.8pc growth in application numbers.

And the College of West Anglia, which has a base in King's Lynn, reported a 25pc increase for its HE courses, with 201 applications received by Sunday's UCAS deadline.

Its degree courses are offered in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University, which has so far seen a 16.8pc rise on 2011's numbers.

UCS has seen a 16pc decrease on 2011 although its Lowestoft base saw a slight increase. Overall, applications are up 6pc on 2010.

Easton College, which offers a small number of foundation and honours degrees, said it was down slightly but was confident many of those applications would become enrolments.

City College Norwich principal Dick Palmer said applications for 2012 had been a 'major source of concern for all higher education institutions' but its numbers were 'holding up well and we are quietly confident that we can maintain our HE student numbers'.

The most recent national figures, taken in December, showed applications were down by 6.4pc.

All higher education sites were keen to stress that the final figures would not be known until the end of the month and late applications would continue to be welcomed.

But the overall message was one of confidence and, for some, relief.

John Last, principal at Norwich University College of the Arts, (NUCA) said applications for the specialist art school were in keeping with the site's growing popularity over the last few years.

He said: 'They are very pleasing. It's part of a trend which goes back three years now. In 2010, we were up 10pc on previous years and in 2011 we were up 30pc. This year it's a smaller increase but it's particularly pleasing because there was a lot of talk about the rise in tuition fees putting people off.'

The principal said no one really knew how raising the cap on fees was going to affect students but he believed that learners were thinking carefully about where they applied.

He said: 'Students are being more forensic in considering their options. They are looking at the infrastructure and NUCA does well there. There's also a tendency towards subjects that are clearly focusing on a career and we are a vocationally-focused institution.'

Charlotte Barber, higher education student support co-ordinator for the College of West Anglia, said the rise in application numbers for its courses had come as a surprise.

She said: 'We thought the increase in fees would be a downturn for us, but it's completely the opposite. We've also seen a large number of students coming from further afield.'

UEA admissions director Mr Barlow said certain courses were proving particularly popular with professional disciplines like nursing, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, as well as biology and economics, seeing an increase in applications on both the 2010 and 2011 figures.

He said the UEA's growing reputation in those areas, as well as the overall draw of Norwich and Norfolk as a location, could be responsible.