'Dramatic decline' in part-time university students in England
There has been a "dramatic decline" in the number of people studying part-time for degrees in England, a report says.
Numbers taking up part-time undergraduate degrees have fallen by 40% since 2010 - that is 105,000 fewer students.
And numbers starting such courses in September last year were down about 30% on the previous year.
There are fears that higher tuition fees in England are putting people off, along with the recession.
Maximum tuition fees for universities in England rose to £9,000 a year in September 2012.
At the same time, part-time students were given access to student loans to cover their tuition fees for the first time.
The new report, called "Impact of the 2012 Reforms" is from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).
It says people studying in this way are often mature and from "non-traditional" [not affluent] backgrounds.
The fall could therefore have an impact on government ambitions to boost skills and qualifications in the population.
One in four part-time undergraduates does not have qualifications above GCSE level, the report says, and most (80%) are in work.
New student loans
Overall, there was also a drop in the number of people starting full-time undergraduate courses last autumn in England compared with the previous, record year, when numbers had been boosted by those trying to avoid the higher fees.
Numbers fell from about 398,000 to 351,00 - roughly 12%.
The fall in part-time numbers for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies was greater - 40% and 27% respectively.
The report from Hefce suggests the economic downturn and increased fees are an issue - despite the fact that student loans are now available to cover them.
"Feedback from universities and colleges suggests that many students and employers may not fully understand the new system, or are concerned about whether they will obtain sufficient value from the higher investment," it says.
"Students who might have found the money to pay the previous lower levels of fees may simply be unwilling to pay higher fees, despite the fact that loans are offered on the same terms as for full-time students."
Falls in part-time students have also been seen in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales, while numbers in Northern Ireland have stayed broadly the same, according to earlier figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Many part-time students have in the past had their tuition fees or part of them paid by their employer. The university group Million+ and the National Union of Students (NUS) believe the increase in maximum fees in these economically difficult times has made some firms reluctant to do so.
Prof Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and chairman of Million+, said: "Universities across the sector which were turning students away two years ago saw student participation and interest decline in 2012."
He added that the fall in part-time study and in mature students taking degrees was of "real concern for individuals, organisations and our society and economy".
"Uncertainties in the economy and the labour market and the greater reluctance of employers to support study are undoubtedly factors but the new funding regime has clearly had an impact."
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the NUS, said urgent action was needed to tackle the decline, which would hit students from disadvantaged backgrounds especially hard.
"Part-time student numbers have been falling since the economic crisis began but the government have created an unsustainable situation by jacking up fees placing a huge burden on potential students," she said.
The government says England's "world-class university sector" has responded well to its reforms, but that it will continue to monitor their effect on demand from mature and part-time students.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said: "There is a new focus on the quality of the student experience and the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university is at record levels.
"There are no financial barriers to higher education and according to the World Bank the system is exemplary. We need to monitor closely the changing demand for part-time, mature and postgraduate study, and will continue to do so."
Birkbeck, University of London, specialises in part-time higher education courses and says it has seen a fall in applications which mirrors the national picture.
Master of Birkbeck David Latchman said: "Part-time study leads to enormous benefits for the economy, employers and individuals. The Hefce report refers to higher education transforming people's lives and being 'one of the nation's most valuable assets.' We must not allow the well-known benefits of university study to be available only to young and full-time students."