A SHARP drop in the number of mature students applying for higher education cast a shadow this week over the government's claims that its policies will not jeopardise lifelong learning. Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a fall of more than 18 per cent in applications from people aged 25 and over and of more than 13 per cent from those aged 21 to 24.
There were more than 9,000 fewer applications for next September from mature students (aged 21 and over) by the initial December 15 closing date - a 16 per cent drop -compared with last year. Set against an overall 4.2 per cent fall, the news was taken by admissions chiefs as evidence that the introduction of fees and loss of grants was hampering lifelong learning rather than traditional higher education.
Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive, said: "The good news is that demand among young people appears to have scarcely fallen. But the fall in applications from mature students flies in the face of everyone's hope that we could get into genuine lifelong learning."
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said: "In our view, confusion over the new scheme led to the slow start and then the rush of applications by school-leavers for the December deadline. We're seeing the same pattern with mature students, who traditionally apply later," she said.
The fees effect could be seen elsewhere in the system, with a 30 per cent drop in applications from the Republic of Ireland, where fees were abolished in 1996, and an almost 80 per cent increase in English applicants hoping to reduce fee payments by entering a Scottish institution in year two, three or four. There was also a 14 per cent drop in applications for places on HND courses.
A total of 332,455 applications were received by the deadline, 14,578 fewer than the previous year. UCAS said it was important to view this in the context of 26,000 students admitted last year above recruitment targets. Research by The THES shows that by January 67 universities out of 101 had received fewer applications for courses compared with last year. The average fall among these institutions was 7.6 per cent.
Private Buckingham University saw applications fall by 25.2 per cent. Of the state-funded institutions, Plymouth University experienced the largest fall with applications down 17.9 per cent. Vice-chancellor John Bull blamed the drop on a fall in mature student numbers and geographical isolation. He said this was compounded by lack of information about fees and grants and rushed planning.
Professor Bull said: "The government was incredibly tardy in getting information out and in understanding how the new system might work on the ground."
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England (applications down by 8.8 per cent), said: "There is absolutely no doubt that the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants has put people off this year." At the other end of the spectrum, Thames ValleyUniversity recorded a 38 per cent increase. Spokesman Andrew Ward said the university had improved its recruitment drive in schools. The UCAS figures show the applications for first-year places in Scottish institutions fell by over 6 per cent and the number of Scottish applicants was also down by more than 5 per cent.
The Asian tigers' currency crisis appears not to have brought about the collapse in applications from South-east Asia that many institutions feared. Only Malaysia, where tax changes have been introduced to discourage study abroad, showed a significant fall of over 23 per cent.
Subject areas facing the biggest fall in applications include teacher training (down 15 per cent), engineering and technology (down 15 per cent), environmental and other physical sciences (down 13 per cent) and social work (down 13 per cent). Growth areas include marketing (up 17 per cent), computer science (up 13 per cent) and design (up 9 per cent).