Fewer mature students are applying to go to university with the scrapping of the nursing bursary partly to blame for the decline, says the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
A UCAS report on mature university applicants shows that in 2017 there was a 7% decrease in UK applicants aged 21 to 25 applying to full-time undergraduate courses, compared to 2016.
Last year also saw a steep 9.8% drop in numbers aged 26 and over applying to do a full-time degree, compared to the previous year.
The dip in numbers was “in large part” due to a drop in applications to nursing courses in England, which fell by 23% in 2017 after the bursary was abolished, said UCAS.
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It said courses allied to medicine – including nursing – were by far the most popular choice for mature students, who tended to be attracted to a much smaller range of vocational courses compared to those fresh out of school and college.
The proportion of mature students embarking on these types of courses is 17.9 percentage points higher than the proportion of 18-year-olds, the report showed.
“Mature students have different motivations, expectations, and needs compared to their younger counterparts”
However, the fact that funding was no longer available for nursing degrees was likely to have deterred some older candidates from applying, the report suggested.
It showed there have been two major dips in the number of mature applicants since 2008 – in 2012 with the introduction of tuition fees and again in 2017 with the scrapping of the nursing bursary.
“This may indicate that the mature cohort is more debt averse, and their decisions are driven by financial considerations,” said the report.
However, the report also showed that the proportion of mature students actually getting offers and places has increased significantly, with acceptance rates for all mature age groups in 2017 the second highest on record. The highest acceptance rates were seen nearly 10 years ago in 2008.
Among 21- to 25-year-olds the acceptance rate in 2017 was nearly 71%, while it was just over 67% for those aged 26 to 30 and the same for 31 to 35-year-olds. Among those aged 36 and over the acceptance rate was 66%.
“While changes to the funding of nursing courses in England has impacted this, it is not the sole cause”
This was despite the fact that a significant proportion of mature students applied to competitive courses, such as nursing.
The report, which marks the start of a UCAS campaign to explore the needs of mature students, also identified other trends including the fact they were more likely to apply to universities and college close to home.
In addition, mature students were more likely to consider higher education when there were fewer jobs around, the report found.
While getting rid of the nursing bursary has had a big impact on mature applicants, UCAS stressed there were also other reasons for falling numbers that it wanted to explore in more detail.
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“While changes to the funding of nursing courses in England has impacted this, it is not the sole cause,” said the report.
“We have observed changes to the application rate for mature students since 2014, which pre – dates the changes t dates the changes to nursing, and our forecasts predict these declines will continue,” it said.
UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant said it was important to understand mature students’ needs and aspirations. “Mature students have different motivations, expectations, and needs compared to their younger counterparts,” she said.
“Entering full-time higher education as an older student is a life-changing commitment, reflected in the focused choices many older students make to pursue highly vocational subjects,” she added.
“A university education opens doors to learning new skills, entering new careers… and making meaningful contributions to society”
Professor Julie Lydon, vice chancellor at the University of South Wales, said it was vital as many eligible people as possible were able to access higher education, which has “the power to transform lives”.
“A university education opens doors to learning new skills, entering new careers, making lifelong connections, and making meaningful contributions to society,” said Professor Lydon who chairs a Universities UK project to promote the benefits of flexible learning.
“It is crucial that these opportunities are made available as widely as possible to those who are qualified to take up these opportunities, and barriers do not stand in the way of these individuals to develop their potential,” she added.