The figures have been recorded by a two-year research project financed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and are based on an analysis of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data from 2005 to 2008.
The study found that 23 per cent of new undergraduate courses in that period did not recruit any students, while 51 per cent of joint-honours programmes suffered the same fate.
The project estimates that the start-up costs of courses average around £20,000, even before they are marketed to students.
The findings were described by project leader Paul Coyle, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching and executive dean at the University for the Creative Arts, as a wake-up call for universities, which needed to rethink their processes "in a changed context".
However, he added that institutions were getting better at developing a "market-led approach" to course development, design and rationalisation.
This argument appears to be borne out by statistics from Ucas: 40,0 courses were offered in 2011-12, but for 2012-13 entry the number has fallen to 38,763.
Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, which is cutting its course portfolio by 70 per cent, said there was more work to be done in this area.
"We perhaps have too many courses rather than too few," he said, "and these courses are often determined by what staff wish to supply rather than what students wish to study."
His position was seconded by Peter Reader, director of marketing and communications at the University of Portsmouth, who has previously accused academics of creating "vanity courses" that are of interest to them but not to students.
"Look at the market research," he said. "If there's no market in the first place, not even the most brilliant marketing will lead to recruitment."
No fond KIS for unpopular courses
Professor Gillies also said that "fashion is quite relevant", pointing out that "forensic science was top of the pops a few years ago, but now we're back to subjects such as business".
He added that the new student information requirements would also have an impact on decisions about which courses to keep.
"Why keep running courses that don't attract many students, especially now that you will have the cost of producing a Key Information Set for every course you offer?" he asked.
"If you have only one student or even zero enrolment, [how will you record employability] for that course in the KIS?"
Such requirements would "force universities to weed those courses out", he added.
Professor Coyle said the findings of the Innovation in the Market Assurance of New Programmes (i-Map) project suggested that universities should adopt "early financial, business and market scrutiny" when developing courses.
But Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, argued that a lot of market research was "rudimentary".
"These are complex markets and often until you put the course on, you don't know whether it's going to run or not," he said.
Professor Gillies said the best approach was to "regularly weed the portfolio garden", but cautioned that senior management needed to "dispose of the weeds thoughtfully".
He added: "It's like any area of business - you review the stock you have in the shop window to ensure it is what people want."
His advice was echoed by Professor Coyle, who said that if a course failed in its first two years, it was unlikely to be successful in the future. He predicted that the closure of courses would become "routine" for universities over the next few years, but said that having the right portfolio in place would enable institutions to improve the student experience and "to some extent" justify higher tuition fees.
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