Factors at play in falling applications

February 20, 1998

ONCE again the drop in applications from mature students is over-simplistically put at the door of changes in student finance (THES, February 13). While the grant and fee (or as it should properly be termed "tax") may well be a factor, Heist Marketing Services for Universities and Colleges has been forecasting such a fall for a number of years, even before the current changes were mooted.

There are a number of highly predictable factors at play: * Major demographic changes mean that numbers in the 21-29 age group which accounts for the great majority of full-time mature entrants is falling dramatically.

* The significant increase in participation over the past decade was bound to have an impact given that most mature students are "second chancers". With such a major increase in the 18-year-old participation rate, these people have now been given first chances and higher education cannot have them twice.

* The opportunities for mature students to enter initial higher education other than through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has increased and many would argue that for older students studying in further education colleges, through distance, flexible or part-time learning, are all more appropriate modes of learning than traditional courses. However, these alternative routes into and through higher education are clearly competitive to full-time courses.

* There must be some correlation between the state of the labour market (ie relatively positive) and the propensity of young adults to return to full-time education. Given that most undergraduates are now combining earning with learning it is perhaps unreasonable to expect adults in work to give up a full-time job for entry to full-time programmes designed largely for the needs of young people.

A fall in mature applications through UCAS should not be seen as a problem in the context of lifelong learning. It is simply that UCAS courses are but a part of an increasingly diverse portfolio of opportunities offered by higher education providers; the big picture is much more encouraging.

David Roberts Chief executive, Heist

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