The number of mature students from England applying for full-time university courses has fallen by almost 20,000 since 2010, a study shows.
Analysis of Ucas data by the Independent Commission on Fees has found that the number of English applicants aged 20 or older fell from around 134,000 in 2010 to about 116,000 in 2013, a drop of around 18,000 or more than 13 per cent.
Losses are higher among those aged 25 and over, with applications falling by 15.4 per cent.
According to the report, Analysis of University Applications for 2013/2014 Admissions, released on 12 September, the decline among mature students represents a sizeable chunk of the overall fall in applicant numbers (almost 31,000 fewer across the UK in 2013 than in 2010).
The figures also cover only a fraction of the mature students who apply to university, as many opt to study part-time. Ucas does not hold data on part-time applicants.
Last year the Higher Education Funding Council for England said there had been a 40 per cent drop in the number of part-time undergraduates starting courses in 2012-13 compared with 2010-11.
Will Hutton, chair of the commission, which was established in January to examine the effect of the government’s policy to raise fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, said the price hike was “having a serious and damaging impact on second chance students”, who often hailed from disadvantaged backgrounds and lacked the opportunity to attend university straight after school.
“If we are truly concerned about widening participation, it is vital that universities and ministers look behind these figures and identify the extent to which higher fees are acting as a deterrent for mature students,” said Mr Hutton, who is also principal of Hertford College, Oxford.
University of Bristol head and former Universities UK president Eric Thomas is leading a review into the drop in part-time applicants, and is due to report this autumn.
The ICF report also appears to confirm earlier evidence of a growing gender divide in university applications.
The decline in the overall number of male applicants in England between 2010 and 2013 is greater than that seen among their female peers (7.6 per cent to 6.4 per cent).
Analysis of University Applications also says that the Ucas data provide evidence that the proportion of 18- and 19-year-olds applying to university is remaining relatively constant.