THE race for a college place by mature applicants has slowed down dramatically, new figures show.
Applications from those aged 23 and over had been moving up rapidly over the past few years and were expected to pick up further.
But the dramatic levelling off in mature applications means that government targets for a 20pc intake of mature students in two years' time cannot be met.
Figures released at the close of the initial deadline for CAO applications last night showed the numbers seeking college places were level with last year at around 72,000.
This figure is made up of around 46,000 current Leaving Cert students; 14,000 to 15,000 mature applicants; those with further education qualifications; and others, including more than 2,000 from Britain. The final tally will not be known until after the late closing date of May 1.
Last year saw an overall 3,000 rise in applications, mainly by adults returning to college after they had lost their jobs and by those who wanted to boost their career prospects.
The increase pushed the percentage of new mature college entrants to 13.6pc, still short of the 2010 target of 17pc.
Various reasons were offered last night for this, including a change in the maintenance grant. In the past, applicants were entitled automatically to the higher non-adjacent rate of up to €3,250, but in future most of them will get the lower rate of a maximum of €1,250.
Career adviser Jill Barrett said that diminishing disposable income is one of the most likely culprits for the slowdown. "When even middle-income householders are being forced to make a choice between food and heat, education is much further down the shopping list," she said.
However, she added that another contributory factor to the trend is the success of the Labour Market Activation (LMA) fund. The scheme facilitates access for the unemployed to innovative part-time higher education opportunities while allowing them to maintain their welfare entitlements.
Meanwhile, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) is to carry out a detailed audit of overpayments of staff by the universities, particularly UCD.
The Higher Education Authority yesterday considered a joint proposal from UCD and the UCD Students' Union on this matter.