A new national strategy for access to higher education courses is urgently needed, researchers have concluded.
Action should be taken to ensure that a higher proportion of students who successfully complete access courses in further education colleges progress to higher education, says a report on the findings of a study from the Learning and Skills Development Agency.
The study, involving a national survey and analysis of data, found that there has been a decline of about 25 per cent over the past five years in numbers of students with access qualifications applying for a place in higher education.
Rates of acceptance by higher education of access students stands at 66 per cent, compared with an average of 79 per cent for all candidates and 86 per cent for those with A levels.
But the report says that financial problems and fear of debt are the predominant reasons for access students failing to progress.
Recruitment to access courses and progression from them has been affected, with enrolments barely recovering from a 20 per cent drop five years ago.
The report says: "Changes in student financial support in HE have contributed to the decline in recruitment to access courses; mature students are more likely to be deterred by the cost of HE and prospects of debt."
The funding of access courses should be reviewed "as a matter of urgency", the report adds. Since the introduction of Curriculum 2000, access courses have been funded at a lower rate than other 16-to-19 programmes.
Nearly 40 per cent of access-course students are in the 21-to-29 age range, 53 per cent are over 30, and just 7 per cent are 20 and under. The report says there is "considerable interest" in running access courses for under-21s.
It says: "Access courses designed specifically for this age group can make an important contribution to the target of 50 per cent participation in HE by 2010."