EFFORTS to improve the range of students at university appear under threat from latest application figures, which show continued steep falls in mature, overseas and sub-degree applicants.
Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service suggest new tuition fee charges for students and an end to maintenance grants have not deterred young applicants, with the number aged under 21 applying up 1.1 per cent.
But this is less positive than it looks because the number of 18 to 21-year-olds has risen in the past year. The number of mature applicants remains well down - by 11.5 per cent for ages 21-24 and 15.1 per cent for those aged 25 and above - although this may also be caused by demographics with a smaller pool of eligible people. And applications for HND courses have dropped by 15.2 per cent, compared with a 2.1 per cent drop for degree courses.
Applications to certain subjects have also suffered, with primary education worst hit, falling 15.4 per cent, sociology down more than 10 per cent and social work down 8 per cent. A surge in admissions between January and May means the overall 2.4 per cent fall in applications shows an improvement on December, when they were down 4.2 per cent.
But universities will be especially worried by a 6.2 per cent drop in lucrative overseas students, mainly because of economic problems in South-East Asia. Applications from Malaysia, where tax relief has been removed from parents sending their children overseas to study, are down 37.4 per cent. Applications from Ireland, which last year decided to stop charging students fees, have dropped by per cent.
In Scotland, where four-year degrees mean students from England and Wales will have to pay an extra year of fees, applications are down 4.5 per cent but there has been an increase of 23 per cent in the number of applicants wanting to start in the second year or later.
A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said: "The figures show initial fears about falls in applications were blown out of proportion. We are still very concerned about the fall in mature applicants and in applications from Malaysia."