Mature students are turning away from full-time higher education, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service out this week.
Six days after the clearing process started with publication of the A-level results on Thursday last week, the number of students aged 25 years and over who had accepted a university place was down by 8 per cent compared with last year.
The number of mature men was down 11 per cent and women 6 per cent. The number of 21 to 24-year-olds accepting a place dropped more than 5 per cent. As universities have confirmed university places faster than ever, the fall is likely to continue.
A spokesman for the Department for Eduation and Employment said: "The UCAS figures are for full-time courses only. Most mature students opt for part-time study."
Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, said: "This reflects the increased financial strain that mature students face. Mature students tend to have mortgages and children. Education is becoming a risk for them. The trend does not fit in with the government's lifelong learning agenda."
Although the total number of people applying for full-time higher education through UCAS was down by 1.5 per cent on last year, the number of accepted applicants was up by 0.5 per cent.
This was because of the speed at which university places were confirmed, despite industrial action by the Association of University Teachers over pay that threatened to disrupt clearing.
On August 25, 257,596 people had secured a university place through UCAS.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, said: "The industrial action by the AUT at A-level results time, and in Scotland during the Highers results, was a damp squib. The few academic staff who boycotted admissions work had little impact."
The proportion of students gaining a place through clearing was marginally down on last year, at 2.4 per cent. The number of people eligible for clearing was down and there were also fewer withdrawals.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is reaping the benefits of more peaceful times.
More students based in Northern Ireland are choosing to stay there to study, while the small number of students coming from England, Scotland and Wales has doubled.
The increase more than makes up for the fall in the number of students coming from Eire, which recently abolished tuition fees.
The figures also showed a further increase in the proportion of women who had accepted a place at university. Women held 53 per cent of the accepted places.
The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals said figures showed a 1.9 per cent drop in acceptances to Scottish institutions, with an 0.8 per cent drop in acceptances from Scots. Coshep believes that Scotland, as a more substantial importer of students from overseas and Ireland, is proportionately more affected by the substantial drop in applications from these groups.