University applications from mature students have dropped by thousands since last year’s hike in tuition fees.
Findings by the Independent Commission on Fees reveal a decline of more than 18,000 after the maximum annual charge was set at £9,000, with a 15 per cent fall from those aged 25 and over alone.
Many of those who choose to study later in life come from lower and middle-income homes and often missed out on university when they left school. These 'second chance' students attempting to return to education to improve their career prospects are suffering the 'serious and damaging' effects of the fee rise, the study warns.
Chair Will Hutton explained how the report confirms the 'worrying downward trend among those applying for full-time courses'. "If we are truly concerned about widening participation, it is vital that universities and ministers look behind these figures and identify the extent to which the higher fees are acting as a deterrent for mature students,” he explained. "There is a real economic and social imperative to do so."
Responding to concerns, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills argued that UCAS data shows 'an increase in mature acceptances' and that students in general are not being 'put off' from applying to university, assisted by government loans and 'greater flexibility'.
Yet 18-year olds also seem to have been deterred by the high costs of a degree, albeit to a lesser extent, with around 2,600 fewer school-leavers applying for the 2012 and 2013 academic years than were expected.
There was, however, a small rise in the number of 18-year olds from poorer areas applying to England’s most competitive universities.
Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, commented: "A gradual proportional increase in applicants from poorer neighbourhoods to the more selective universities is positive, but there is still much further go. It is crucial that people know that returning to study could be a great option for them."
The National Union of Students described the fall in mature applications as 'incredibly disheartening', arguing that older students add 'richness and depth to the UK student body'.
"NUS is calling on government, the higher and further education sectors and students’ unions to respond to the challenges that this group of students are facing," said vice president for higher education, Rachel Wenstone.
"We cannot afford to let the mature students of the future down."