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Tuesday, June 9, 1998 Published at 21:57 GMT 22:57 UK


Drop in mature student applications

Dwindling numbers fuel the row over tuition fees

A Liberal Democrat education spokesman has confirmed in the Commons that official figures to be published later this week will show a significant drop in the number of people applying to go to university as mature students.

During the Third Reading debate on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, Phil Willis said the statistics showed a "staggering" drop in university applications from older students.

[ image: Phil Willis:
Phil Willis: "Has this also hit teacher training?"
He claimed the University and Colleges Admissions Service figures showed that the contentious new £1,000-a-year tuition fees were proving to be a deterrent to people entering higher education.

The Education Minister Kim Howells said the figures had been faxed to Mr Willis "in confidence" and should not be released until the end of the week.

Later Mr Willis said he accepted that the impending introduction of fees had not put off younger students, as the figures showed the number of 18- to 20-year-olds applying to start university in September had risen by 1.1%.

Commons exchange between Phil Willis and Kim Howells
"More telling is the fact that there is an 11.5% drop in applications from students in the 21-24-year-old group and a staggering 15.1% reduction of those students who are over 25.

"That wasn't mentioned yesterday, yet it is a fact that should have been put on the floor of the House and should have been part of the whole debate on tuition fees."

[ image: Kim Howells:
Kim Howells: "You were sent those figures in confidence"
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, appeared to hint at what the figures would show when he was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday morning. He said they would belie claims that the new proposals were leading to a drop in the number of people applying to go into higher education.

"There has been an uplift on what was an unprecedented increase last year in anticipation of the change. A one per cent increase in those leaving school and college is an enormous boost compared with the gloom and doom people were talking six months ago," he said then.

But he conceded there was a problem with mature students, and said he wanted to monitor the trend and help them.

The government later announced a package of measures with the aim of helping mature students, disabled people and single parents.

Willetts letter

Winding up the debate in the Commons, however, Mr Blunkett said that the University and Colleges Admissions Service had faxed the latest figures across to his department on Tuesday afternoon and "for reasons of their own" had also sent them to the Liberal Democrats.

He said the figures he had used on Monday had been those published on May 15.

In a letter to Mr Blunkett, the Shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, has asked for clarification on when the Education Department received the figures. He wants to know why, if they arrived before Monday's debate, they were not immediately made available to MPs.

"I am sure you will agree that it is important that MPs should not be deprived of information on such a sensitive matter until after the debate on the Bill was completed," he wrote.

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