Do universities waste individuals' time and taxpayers' money when they recruit students who later drop out? The message behind current official performance indicators and funding arrangements is that they do. Critics of widening participation see low completion rates as damning evidence of the failings of certain new universities, while ministers speak defensively of the UK's good record by international standards.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report on working-class dropout from higher education questions the idea that "withdrawal" should be seen in wholly negative terms. Interviews with 67 students who dropped out of Glamorgan, Paisley, Staffordshire and Ulster universities produced a more mixed picture. Most did not consider their experience a waste of time and thought they would return to formal learning at some point. The researchers (who were obviously receptive to a more positive portrayal of dropping out) describe their subjects as "lifelong learners frustrated by an outmoded system".
Elsewhere in this edition, Jenny Ryan gives a much more traditional and highly personal account of the long-term damage associated with abandoning a course. She accuses universities of placing too much emphasis on "hauling" students in and too little on supporting them. Few would argue with her or defend institutions that recruit students to courses unsuited to their abilities or circumstances. That is not to dismiss the Rowntree report's insights, however. If widening participation is to remain a public-policy goal, we need a more sophisticated view of dropout than the current black-and-white portrayal. Students who transfer from full-time to part-time courses, for example, are not dropping out, yet this is how they appear in the statistics. Others who choose (or are forced, for financial reasons) to take a break and return to their studies later are not lost to the system either.
There is a fine balance to be struck between encouraging institutions to recruit and support students responsibly and unfairly penalising those who are prepared to take a risk on socially and economically disadvantaged candidates. The proposal to link teaching funds to the completion of modules rather than longer periods of study, for example, can be seen as removing an incentive to maximise retention or as an overdue recognition of the realities of widening participation. The Rowntree report should be compulsory reading for those who believe there is only one possible conclusion.