Leader: Sinking expectations

July 21, 2006

For the drop-out rates published among this week's performance indicators to be rising would not be surprising if the measures of widening participation were moving in the same direction. The correlation of non-completion with low entry qualifications and socioeconomic disadvantage is well known; it partly explains why Scotland exceeds the UK average. But the latest figures show an overall decline in enrolments from "underrepresented groups" at the same time as the drop-out rate is rising. The comparison is not exact - different cohorts are being measured - but the trend is disappointing given the amount of attention (and money) lavished on initiatives designed to widen participation.

There has been progress in the seven years in which the indicators have been published: the UK drop-out rate has fallen from 16 per cent to 14.9 per cent even though there are now 50,000 more entrants from a wider range of backgrounds. There are fewer horror stories of universities with apparently shocking drop-out rates well beyond their benchmarks. But the gradual upward drift means the benchmarks themselves have become shocking. In the case of three London universities, for example, drop-out rates of more than a quarter were barely more than the national average for the combination of courses and entry qualifications at each.

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