University applications from the over-25s are down by nearly 20 per cent, while those from the 21-25 age group fell by more than 13 per cent on 1997,the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said. Applications from under-21s were down by just under 2 per cent.
Overall applications were down 4.2 per cent by the December 15 deadline, slightly less than was feared.
The figures give the best evidence yet that the decision to abolish grants and introduce #163;1,000-a-year tuition fees has deterred certain groups of would-be students. Nearly 9,000 fewer students aged over 21 applied compared with the same time in 1996.
UCAS stressed that applications could still be submitted and pointed to a late surge in forms received by the beginning of this month. University admissions last year exceeded targets by 26,000 as students scrambled to avoid the fees.
Education leaders and MPs expressed concern about the long-term effect of fees on adult students.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "This indicates very strongly that older people are being deterred by the advent of tuition fees. More than 50 per cent of students in higher education are mature and that is the area where we hope to expand. It's a foolish policy and what they ought to do is scrap it."
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said question marks hung over the effects of fees on women, Asian students, and disabled people.
She said: "We are very concerned about people who are already disenfranchised from higher education. Why would a student leave a job or go from unemployment into higher education when they are laying themselves open to debt? We are also very worried about access students who will think again about education."
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said: "People who give up work to study full time make a huge investment in their own future. The less help they get the bigger debt and the less likely it is they choose to do it."
Judith Norrington, of the Association of Colleges, warned: "There is a greater deterrent the older you are. Somebody might say: 'I know I can get a better job if I go to higher education, but I can't afford to stop work and study'."
Professor John Craven, vice- chancellor of Portsmouth University, said his staff had already noticed falls in applications from mature students. He said: "Our anecdotal evidence is that students on access and other mature student routes have dropped off. It's more so this year because some rushed in for 1997 entry. It's not the fees which have caused it as much as the loss of the grant."
He said more alternatives to full-time study such as workplace-based higher education or part-time degrees may be needed.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, which represents Britain's universities, said: "We are concerned about the mature student issue. Confusion over the new scheme led to the slow start and then the rush of applications by school-leavers for the December deadline. With mature students, who traditionally apply later, we're seeing the same pattern."