The government moved this week to shore up the numbers of older and poorer students as figures confirmed that applications from mature students for full-time higher education places in 1999 had fallen for the second year running.
Loans are to be made available for the first time to part-time students in higher education. The move, which could point to loans being made available to all part-time higher education students eventually, affects only those part-timers on low incomes.
From autumn 2000 all low-income part-timers, existing and new students on approved higher education courses will be eligible to borrow at least Pounds 500 a year for course expenses such as books and equipment. Students must be on courses that involve at least half the hours of a full-time course.
Criteria for defining "low income" for the purposes of the loan are still under consideration, but it could be available for those with residual net annual income of Pounds 10,000 or less.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said that a significant proportion of eligible students would be mature, since younger people would have their loan eligibility means-tested against parental income in most cases.
The decision is part of the government's strategy to increase the numbers of people from poorer backgrounds in higher education. Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said: "The government is determined that no student should be deterred from going into higher education because of financial considerations."
But the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service indicate that government policies are deterring people. The number of applicants aged 25 years and over is down by 10 per cent. The number of people aged between 21 and 24 years applying is down by 9.2 per cent, while those under-21 are only down by 0.5 per cent. The total number of applicants is down by 1.8 per cent.
"There has been a drop in the number of mature applicants," said Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS. He blamed the fall on a low unemployment rate. "The UK unemployment rate in December was reportedly the lowest monthly figure for nearly 18 years, and interest in higher education among mature students tends to decline when more jobs are available," he said.
"We warned the government that applications would be hit by the introduction of tuition fees and they have been hit," said a spokesman for the National Union of Students. "We are seeing a drop particularly in the number of mature students - the very people that the government wants to attract through lifelong learning. The NUS urges the government to look again at the funding of higher education."
Diana Warwick of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said that the figures were down because of last year's rush to get in before tuition fees were announced. "As far as mature students are concerned, the CVCP is committed to find out what motivates mature students and is putting together a project group to examine recent trends and data, and is commissioning a study of mature students' choices," she said.
Other figures from UCAS reveal that:
* Scotland has been hit hard, as revealed last week in The THES. The number of people making at least one application to a university or college in Scotland has fallen by 5.9 per cent.
* There has been a drop in the number of applications from overseas students, particularly from the Far East. Applications from the Republic of Ireland are also down, as student tuition fees there have been abolished and there is less financial incentive to study in the UK, according to UCAS.
* Languages, physical science and engineering all suffered drops of about 10 per cent in the number of applications. Computer science and software engineering were both up by more than 20 per cent.
Scotland hard on poor, page 4