STUDENT leaders this week called on the government to take urgent action to halt a massive slump in the numbers of adults accepting university places.
The National Union of Students said it was horrified by the latest admissions figures, which showed that the number of over 25s accepting university places for 1998-99 has fallen by 33 per cent below the total number accepted last year.
The figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on Wednesday also show a 30 per cent slump for 21 to 24-year-olds. The under 21s, mainly school-leavers, were down 12.5 per cent.
They are significantly worse than applications figures released by UCAS before the exam results in August. Early figures reported applications from over 25s down by just 15 per cent and 21 to 24-year-olds down by 11 per cent.
An NUS spokeswoman blamed the collapse on tuition fees and said it flew in the face of government plans to improve adult access and participation. She said: "The Government must take urgent action to try to rectify this situation. Mature students come into higher education with additional financial burdens. They are also influenced by financial considerations when deciding to go to university, so an extra cost like tuition fees is bound to be a deterrent."
The NUS believes it unlikely that the numbers of over 21s accepting places will improve dramatically before the start of term because most already have qualifications and did not have to wait for the A-level results late last month.
A UCAS spokesman agreed with the NUS that tuition fees had probably deterred some. But he pointed out that the total pool of mature students who wanted to go into higher education is diminishing because many had already got degrees as adults and because the huge rise in school-leavers gaining degrees made them less inclined to return to education as adults.
The admissions figures undermined claims made by UCAS last week that tuition fees had not put many off. At the time, chief executive Tony Higgins based his claims on the fact that there were fewer withdrawals from the admissions process than at the same time last year. This week's figures showed 9,478 withdrawals, compared with 8,601 at the same time last year.
Mr Higgins said this week that tuition fees have not deterred English applicants to Scottish universities. By Tuesday evening, 4,330 English students had accepted higher education places in Scotland compared with 4,292 in total last year. But a spokesman said later that 6.7 per cent of the 4,330 had been accepted straight into second year or above, a rise over last year's 4.3 per cent.