Demand for higher education continues to falter among adults, despite the government's commitment to lifelong learning, a government adviser on lifelong learning has warned. Recruitment in deprived areas has been hit hardest, he said.
John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Warwick University, found that demand for higher education access courses in England had stabilised in 1998 after year-on-year growth.
In a paper on access course recruitment trends from a sample of 77 course directors, he reports that despite buoyancy in previous years, recruitment in England in 1998 had risen by a mere three people. "There is bound to be concern that it may herald a longer-term trend in British higher education," said Professor Field.
His findings reflect an 18 per cent slump in university applications by adults over 25 in 1998. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is due to release figures for 1999 applications next week.
"We have seen in England a tailing-off of growth in demand for access courses," Professor Field said. "I have no doubt that barriers to entry are higher than they used to be. The system - both the government and institutions - has failed to inform mature students accurately. Many believe they must pay fees when they are often exempt. Many will not take a loan."
Professor Field also found a marked slump in demand for courses in inner cities. Half of colleges in inner London reported a fall in demand, compared with less than 10 per cent of colleges reporting a fall in "outer London".
Hackney College, in inner London, has had to close an access to science course it had been running for several years owing to lack of demand. "It seems that it is harder to recruit in the poorest areas," said Professor Field.
Fears that financial constraints are deterring adults from higher education are compounded by a "striking" increase in demand for more vocational courses, which students believe are more likely to lead to employment. This was at the expense of more traditional, general academic courses.
Professor Field found 65 per cent of colleges reported an increase in recruitment to programmes leading to degrees with specific "professional preparation". Only 21 per cent reported a rise to courses preparing students for general entry to higher education, or entry to non-vocational courses, while 68 per cent reported a decline.