Higher tuition charges are being blamed for a sudden fall in Australian university enrolments.
It is only the second time in 15 years that the number of freshers has dropped. The last fall was in 1992, but that came after a decade of enormous growth in the higher education sector.
Between 1983 and 1995 under the former Labor government, enrolments leapt by more than 90 per cent. In Labor's last three years in power, the number of freshers rose by 20 per cent to more than 250,000.
After the election in early 1996 of a conservative administration, spending on higher education was cut and students' fees increased sharply.
Older Australians, as well as part-time and external students, now appear to have been particularly affected and their numbers have shown the biggest decline, according to the Higher Education Council.
The federal government's advisory body has noted a general lack of improvement in participation among each of the so-called "equity" groups, including indigenous, rural and isolated students, and the poor.
The report says that the fall in enrolments is greater among non-school leavers, part-time and external students. There are also considerable differences between the states and territories, with the Northern Territory experiencing a 14 per cent drop, Victoria almost 5 per cent, Tasmania 3.8 per cent and South Australia 2.3 per cent.
Last month, the Australian vice-chancellors' committee expressed alarm at figures that revealed a steady fall in applications for university places over the past three years. The committee described the trend as "deeply worrying" and said it highlighted a lack of national policy focus on higher education.
Applications this year were down by 10,000 or 4.1 per cent on 1997. This followed a decline of 3.3 per cent between 1996 and 1997 - at a time when demographic data pointed to a likely increase.
Academic and student organisations said the enrolment decline reported by the HEC was a direct result of increased fees. The National Tertiary Education Union said the largest fall in fresher numbers was in areas that had a high correlation with the most disadvantaged groups in Australia.
NTEU president Carolyn Allport said there was a high correlation in the mature-age category with students who might not have been able to afford to study when they left school.
"The drop in part-time and external enrolments is also of particular concern as this is a mode of study often used by those who have previously been excluded from tertiary study," Dr Allport said.
Undergraduate enrolments were not the only ones to experience a fall-off. The HEC referred to a long-standing trend of under-representation among women in fee-paying postgraduate courses. The council noted the lack of improvement in this situation and said it was "an issue worthy of further inquiry".