The Government, academics and universities must do more for older students, a leading vice-chancellor said this week after figures revealed evidence of an increasingly ageing student body.
Dame Sandra Burslem, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan, the country's second largest university, and herself a former mature student, said that Government policy was too focused on school-leavers and that universities did not do enough to support older students.
Her comments came as statistics from Universities UK showed that the number of students aged over 25 grew by 11 per cent between 2001-02 and 2002-03, making them one of the fastest growing groups of students.
The trend looks set to continue, as data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a steep rise in numbers of older applicants. The number of those aged over 21 climbed from 41,907 in 2001-02 to 54,199 in 2004, a rise of 29 per cent, according to Ucas.
In the same period, the number of applicants aged over 21 from overseas (including other European Union states) jumped from 6,008 to 9,571 - a 59 per cent rise.
At a conference on mature students last week, Dame Sandra said: "Mature student numbers are recovering after they dipped in 1998 with the introduction of (tuition) fees."
She said that numbers could rise higher as the Government improved grants for part-time students, but she noted that the funding systems for universities and students had not changed to reflect the impact of these students.
In 2002-03, the over-21 age group made up 57 per cent of all students. They represented 90 per cent of part-time undergraduates and a third of full-time ones. They accounted for 87 per cent of part-time postgraduates and 47 per cent of full-time postgraduates.
"Mature students form the majority of students, but the debate on higher education is often conducted as if 18-to-21-year-olds on full-time degrees were the norm," said Dame Sandra, who chairs UUK's teaching quality and lifelong learning strategy group.
The Open University and Birkbeck College have been lobbying the Government for better funding for part-time students, most of whom are mature. Last month, they won a promise of better grants from 2005.
"While these two universities have led this campaign, it is a vital one for new universities as well, many of which have significant numbers of part-time students," Dame Sandra said. "These students - and the universities that teach them - need to be properly funded. Universities must also introduce more flexible methods of teaching."
Performance indicators published this year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that mature students, who have a dropout rate of 16 per cent, are twice as likely to quit their studies as undergraduates under 21.
Dame Sandra said: "At Manchester Met, we conduct exit interviews, and students invariably put 'personal reasons' for why they left. We need to know if these reasons are genuinely personal or if they cover issues that we can do something about."
UUK, which organised the conference, is also part of a working group set up by the Department for Education and Skills to look at age restrictions on students loans. Loans are currently not available to students over 50.
Dame Sandra said: "The Government stresses that it wants half of all 18 to 30-year-olds to have had some experience of higher education. But what of the over-30s? In the current job market, people need to reskill throughout their lifetime. There is no sense in restricting access to loan by age."