New figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show applications for full-time degree courses from students aged over 21 are down by more than 8,500 compared with this time last year.
While applications from 18 to 21-year-olds have remained constant at about 27,000, those from students aged 21 to 25 have fallen by 12 per cent from 25,833 to 22,688. Applications from over 25s are down nearly 16 per cent, from 35,389 in 1997 to 29,789.
Colleges believe they can tap into this market by offering more flexible higher education programmes which allow students to overcome the burden of tuition fees and the replacement of grants with loans.
John Brennan, director of further education development at the Association of Colleges, said increasing numbers of colleges would be looking at degree programmes which do not require full-time attendance. Many older students with families would be particulalrly keen to study closer to home. "FE colleges, especially those in rural areas, will be well-placed to respond to this demand," he told a conference looking at the impact of student fees.
Whereas all students will have to pay pound;1,000 tuition fees from September, it is older adults - who are less likely to be supported by their parents - who will be worse hit by the disappearance of grants in 1999.
West Suffolk College is hoping that the introduction of Saturday morning classes will attract those who have jobs to take part-time degrees. "We still have plenty of students who want to do higher education but they are being put off by the loan system and the fear of debt," said the college's higher education co-ordinator, David Kent.
Blackpool and the Fylde College is planning to widen participation among adults by offering a new type of access course to help improve their basic skills before taking a degree course at the college. John Allen, the vice-principal, said higher education courses did not necessarily have to be part-time as the introduction of modular programmes and credit frameworks would assist flexibility.
"There is definitrely a gap in the market, which we would like to fill," he added.
Full-time higher education courses will attract a pound;1,000 fee from September in the same way as those run by universities. But colleges will continue to set their own fees for part-time HE courses.
Vic Seddon, the principal of Croydon College, said the changes should benefit mixed economy colleges, such as his, which offer large numbers of FE and HE courses. "Our applications are holding up quite well, though full-time students will be more difficult to retain because of the fee element," he said.
Four colleges in Cornwall have pledged to collaborate over HE courses. Students wishing to attend university in the county currently have to travel to Plymouth, although colleges such as Truro are running increasing numbers of franchised degree programmes. "It's been clear for some years that increasing numbers of people are not able or willing to move away from home," said principal Jonathan Burnett.
Baroness Blackstone, the Education and Employment minister, told delegates at last week's conference that the number of adults taking full-time degrees had been in decline for three years. An upturn in the jobs market meant students in their twenties preferred part-time courses, she said.
But UCAS chief executive Tony Higgins said government information about the new loans and fees system had been mostly aimed at school and college leavers. "There has been no campaign directed at mature students," he said.