Tuesday, April 27, 1999 Published at 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
Rise in older students
Ministers want more people of all ages to study
There are more mature students in higher education in the UK this year, confounding the gloomy predictions of those who said tuition fees would deter older applicants.
There is evidence that the government's policy of encouraging more people to study part-time is working.
Official figures just released show that there are some 347,000 students over the age of 21, an increase of 5,000 since last year.
The figures, collated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, also show that since last year there has been a 2% rise in the total number of higher education students, including postgraduates. The number of undergraduate entrants has remained steady.
"The buoyant labour market is likely to lead more to opt to stay in work and follow the part-time route into higher education."
The numbers studying part-time show the biggest growth - 4% between last year and this, to 567,000, about a third of the total student body. The figures do not include those for students on higher education courses in further education colleges, which the agency says are not yet available.
"Around two thirds of mature students choose to study part-time and we have announced a range of measures to support them," Baroness Blackstone said.
"This year, we introduced fee remission for part-time students who lose their jobs during their course. From the beginning of next year, tuition will be free to all students on benefits.
"And in autumn 2000, we will be introducing loans to part-timers on low incomes to help with the costs associated with their courses."
But the President of the National Union of Students, Andrew Pakes, said: "Mature students, who are invariably people who have been failed by the education system once already, should have the option to come back and study in the way that suits them best.
"There has been a 14% drop in over 25s on full time degree courses because they can not afford the tuition fees. Next year the picture will be even more bleak."
'Studying part-time suits many'
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has been monitoring a drop in applications from mature students. But it counts only those wanting to study full-time as undergraduates.
"The government recently has been increasing the amount of part-time provision and local provision to encourage more people to take up courses where they don't have to travel a long distance and they don't have to study full-time," a spokesman for Ucas said.
"It helps some people if they can work to support themselves while they are studying.
"It illustrates the changing nature of higher education in this country that there is now growing flexibility and a move to more part-time provision.
"It's becoming more customer-focused, if you like - people telling universities how they want to study. Being part-time suits a lot more people than it used to, and the universities and colleges are responding by providing a lot more part-time courses."
The biggest increases of all are in the numbers of students from European Union countries outside the UK - a spectacular 35% in the case of part-timers on first degrees, although the actual number is very small: just 2,300.