Mature students are struggling to secure places at Scottish colleges and universities, according to a report by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) which shows a drop in their participation rate over the past five years.
"Second-chance applicants are likely to be squeezed out," said John Field, professor for lifelong learning at Stirling University. As the number of school-leavers applying for further and higher education rose, the success rate for older applicants was likely to fall, with colleges and universities opting for prospective students straight out of school, he said.
Over the period included in Scottish Participation in Further and Higher Education 2005-2006 to 2009-10, published by the SFC last week, the number of students aged 16-19 increased from 413.3 to 432.4 per 1,000, but fell from 95.4 per 1,000 to 83.6 for those aged 19 and above.
"We know that the past two academic years have seen applications for course places going in earlier and places filling up quicker. With pressure on places in universities, some will seek to use HNCs and HNDs as their higher education route and this may have impacted on those seeking to enter as mature students," said a spokesman for Scotland's Colleges.
The inflexibility of the 16-hour rule, which states that an adult cannot study more than 16 hours a week without being deemed a full-time student, could be a potential barrier for mature students, preventing them from re- skilling or up-skilling in a short time. "We are currently pursuing a solution to this," he said.
The SFC figures showed a wide variation in participation rates across local authority areas for both higher and further education. The highest rates in 2009-10 were recorded in Angus, Orkney and Shetland in terms of headcount, although the SFC points out that using "headcount" as a measure can be misleading as some students may be taking more than one course and could therefore be double-counted. Falkirk, East and West Lothian and Midlothian had the lowest participation measured by headcount.
FE participation was influenced by rates of unemployment, as well as demographics and other factors, said the Scotland's Colleges' spokesman. There was also a trend towards full-time study, which meant that students finished more quickly, he added.
Abolishing inequalities in university participation, prevalent in parts of the west of Scotland, particularly Glasgow, should be a Scottish Government priority, urged Professor Field.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, echoed that view: "The differences across Scotland in being able to access higher and further education are deeply worrying. We need concerted Government action on improving fair access, for example through increased student support and the abolition of part-time fees."