Mature students mainly study subjects allied to medicine, including nursing, and education, according to a report from Ucas.
The share of mature students pursuing subjects allied to medicine is 17.9 percentage points greater than the share of 18-year-olds, according to the report.
The report, published on 5 July, compares the characteristics of those aged 21 and over who apply for full-time undergraduate courses to those of applicants aged 18.
According to Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, mature students have “different motivations, expectations and needs compared to their younger counterparts”, which is reflected in the “focused choices many older students make to pursue highly vocational subjects”.
As more female students typically apply for courses such as nursing and education, this explains why more than 70 per cent of mature students over the age of 31, accepted to full-time degrees, are women, Ucas said.
The report also found that of all the mature students domiciled in the UK, 81.4 per cent attend a provider within an hour’s drive of their home, whereas 18-year-olds are more likely to attend a university more than an hour away from their home.
Mature students are also more likely to apply later in the application cycle and when the job market is weaker, according to the analysis.
The Office for Students’ director of fair access, Chris Millward, said that the analysis shows why “one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to attracting and supporting students”.
“To ensure that the benefits of higher education flow back into local economies and public services throughout the country, there need to be better opportunities and support for people who want to study close to home and later in life, as well as for young people who live on campus,” he said.
Mature student numbers at UK universities have slumped since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012, dropping by about a third to 2017. The figures took another hit when tuition fees replaced nursing bursaries: in 2017, there was a 9.8 per cent decrease in UK applicants aged 26 and over compared with 2016, largely because of a decline in the number of applicants for nursing courses in England, which fell by 23 per cent.
A number of university groups, experts and charities have called for the government’s review of post-18 education to address the decline in mature students, and Universities UK has launched a project to examine how more flexible learning could repair the falling numbers.
Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales, said that it was “crucial” that the opportunities that higher education brings “are made available as widely as possible” and that “barriers do not stand in the way of these individuals to develop their potential”.
“As the economy and demand for skills change, we are likely to see more people looking to learn and retrain throughout their lives,” Professor Lydon said.