Over-30s will be lost to higher education in the government's drive to reach its target of getting half of all 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010, the Mature Students' Union has warned.
"You might as well be dead at 31," said newly elected MSU president Alan Coleman, speaking to The THES after the union's annual conference in Birmingham.
"They have a quota for under-30s at one end and at the other there is a drive to recruit high-income overseas students to subsidise home students.
We will be completely squeezed out."
Recent growth in the student population has largely come from mature students, who make up about 60 per cent of the total student population.
But figures show that most of the growth is made up of students in their early 20s.
Within a 2.8 per cent overall increase in students entering higher education last autumn, there was an increase of almost 9 per cent in those aged between 21 and 24 years, compared with just over 4 per cent of students aged over 25, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Mr Coleman, a part-time forensic science student at South East Essex College, had to put his final year of a law degree on hold after trying to hold down a full-time job and complete the course at the same time.
Mr Coleman said that mature students had less financial support than jobseekers, who received additional support in housing and council-tax benefits.
He said that mature students should get help with National Insurance contributions, as the interruption in NI payments because of time out for studying resulted in them getting reduced pension entitlements.
Under the recent higher education white paper's plans for a new maximum £1,000 student grant combined with student loans, mature students got "the same support as the 18-year-old student living at home and supported by their parents", Mr Coleman said. "But mature students usually have a family to support and a mortgage to pay," he added.
Before the white paper, ministers announced a simplification of the "dog's breakfast" of financial support available to those mature students outside the standard grants and loan system, but it did not provide any additional money.
A new Parent's Learning Allowance worth up to £1,300 a year will subsume money previously available under bursaries for travel, books and equipment.
The child dependants grant and school meals grant forstudent parents will also be replaced by enhanced benefits available under the child tax credit.
Mr Coleman added that the government's focus on vocational courses was sending out the wrong signals. "It is making a mockery of lifelong learning for learning's sake," he said.