Australians are turning away from higher education in their thousands, with applications for university places down this year by more than 10,000.
Figures released by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee show that for the second year in a row, fewer Australians applied in 1998 to enrol in higher education.
The largest decrease in applications came from would-be students aged over 20. Their numbers fell by almost 7 per cent compared with 1997.
At the same time, the 1998 data confirms a trend revealed last year of fewer young Australians entering university immediately after leaving school.
The number of eligible school-leavers applying to go to university this year fell by 3.5 per cent compared with 1997.
Last year, overall applications fell by 4 per cent, although there was a massive decline of 10 per cent in the number of mature-age students.
Although some of the fall is due to demographic factors, critics claimed the major cause was the sharply increased tuition charges imposed after Prime Minister John Howard and his conservative administration was elected in 1996.
Vice-chancellors, academics, students and the Labour opposition expressed alarm at the decline in applications.
The AVCC warned that if it continued it would be difficult for Australia to maintain its skill base.
Stuart Hamilton, AVCC executive director, said: "While offers are being made and places are being filled, the worry is that if we see further falls in applications, and the number of eligible applicants is reduced further, we will be left with the prospect of having to import skilled people from overseas. And that cannot be good for our intellectual and cultural strength or our national capacity to generate wealth."
Mr Hamilton said that if the quality of the student intake was to be maintained there would need to be an increase in the level of government and private-sector support. Otherwise, universities would have no choice but to turn away "good applicants".
The National Tertiary Education Union said the AVCC figures contradicted the government's claim that record numbers of students would enrol in universities this year.
The union said university education was increasingly being seen as an expensive education option, with higher tuition fees a major factor in the decline in university participation.
NTEU president Carolyn Allport said if funding policies continued, Australia would not have the graduates it needed for the 21st century. She said the drop in participation rates by older students was particularly worrying as this "flies in the face" of political commitments to lifelong learning.
"We need policies that ensure all students who are able to benefit from a university education have access to it," Dr Allport said.
"No university system, however, can increase student participation and maintain high quality education, when it is operating in an environment of a decline in real funding and increases in individual student costs."
Opposition education spokes- man, Mark Latham, said the AVCC figures were confirmation of the damage being done to higher education by the conservative government.
"The decrease in mature-age applications is a strong indication that pursuit of undergraduate or postgraduate degrees by some older people is becoming almost impossible," Mr Latham said. "Women are particularly disadvantaged in that they face not only higher tuition charges but the effects of the government's child-care cuts as well."
He said the Labour Party would release details of its commitment to higher education in the lead-up to the next federal election. Labour intended to remove the barriers to participation that had been constructed by the conservative government, Mr Latham said.