31/01/2012 17:00 GMT | Updated 01/04/2012 06:12 BST

Creative Thinking is Needed to Keep Mature Students Applying for University

Last summer, I was puzzled to receive a reference for a mature applicant to a part-time degree at Bristol University, for whom we had not received an application form. When we investigated, it transpired that the applicant had decided not to apply at the last minute, because she felt such a university was 'not for the likes of her'. Her referee persuaded her to change her mind.

It is happy for us that we gained a brilliant student in such an accidental way. But many other potential applicants do not apply, for similar reasons.

Figures released yesterday by UCAS show that the number of older people not applying, and thus excluding themselves, has increased because of the new funding arrangements. Whereas there has been a 4.1% drop in the number of 18-year-olds in England applying to university in 2012, 15.5% fewer 23-year olds have applied than in 2011 and 11% fewer over-40s. This trend is repeated across the different age groups above the age of 21.

This is not a surprise. The new funding model allows universities to charge up to £9,000 per year and asks students to repay their fees over a period of 30 years after graduation. It is a system clearly designed with an 18-year old student in mind, who has no prior debts and (in theory) a lifetime of employment ahead of him or her.

An older person will often need to make very different calculations from an 18-year-old about the benefits and risks there are in taking out a loan. Imagine, for example, that you are a woman in your early 40s, with three children under 12. Both you and your husband are on low incomes. You wish you could afford to save for a mortgage and would like to put some money aside to help with your children's education.

Or imagine you left school at 14 without qualifications, that you have spent time in and out of prison and battled with drug addiction. You have started to turn your life around, found part-time work, and signed up for a short return-to-study course at your local college. You have never earned more than £9,000 in one year and do not know anyone who has been to university.

In either situation, would you take on a £27,000 debt for a university education, even with the assurance that you would not pay anything back until you earned over £21,000? Even a more affluent middle-aged person, with children and a mortgage, might take fright at the thought of such a loan.

A substantial drop in applications from mature applicants thus not only means a change in the age range of students. It also demonstrates that the new system is likely to exclude those who already feel marginalised in society or by education. Mature students tend to be people who took a sharp turn away from education in their early life. They are often from less privileged backgrounds, from geographical areas where few people have experience of higher education, or from a socio-economic, ethnic or other background which is poorly represented in universities.

It is also worth noting that the figures released by UCAS do not give us the whole picture. There are no accurate figures for applications to part-time courses, as these are handled by universities and not through UCAS. Meanwhile, as a consequence of the higher fees, the quiet decimation of departments specifically dedicated to flexible learning opportunities for adults continues apace. The decline of the Centre for Community Engagement at Sussex University is only the latest example.

What can be done about all of this, including by the new director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), who will be appointed soon? OFFA should push for admissions to part-time programmes to be handled through UCAS as soon as possible. Universities should also be required to offer better incentives than at present for students on low incomes with children, to prevent them from sacrificing their own education unnecessarily.

But there is also a need to think in more radical terms. For example, OFFA could insist that anyone over the age of 21, with no prior experience of higher education, be given an entitlement to 20 credits of learning for free at their nearest institution. This would do much to bridge the gap between universities and their local communities. Such students would also be more likely to understand the benefits (and risks) of a loan, after tasting university education for themselves.

That is one suggestion to stand for many. There is an urgent need for such creative thinking from OFFA and others, and for action to ensure that the balance between higher fees and widening participation is properly enforced. If universities are to become more inclusive, we cannot afford to rely on happy accidents.