Far fewer students drop out of university than official figures suggest, says new research revealed today.
The report, published by Universities UK, shows a drop-out rate of about 5 per cent. The official rate used by the government is 17 per cent.
The difference is explained largely by the fact that for the first time the study, by the Institute for Employment Studies, takes into account the proportion of people who leave their course but then find another course, usually at a different institution.
The official rate took no account of institutional transfers. But, according to the UUK report, which was supported by the Department for Education and Skills, the proportion dropping out from their initial institution is also lower at about 10 per cent - 7 per cent less than the official rate - even without taking into account those transferring.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "That so many students are happy with their choices is a good reflection on all the hard work done by universities to ensure that the student experience is a positive one. Universities offer an increasing diversity of choice that is clearly welcomed by students. But to ensure that students take full advantage of their higher education experiences and to help widening participation, institutions need to be properly funded."
The IES study followed up nearly 4,000 people who applied for full-time undergraduate places in 1998. At the time, the institute produced a study exploring how those potential students chose their institution.
The follow-up study found that 86 per cent of applicants took up a place in higher education in 1998. Of the 14 per cent who did not take up places, the most likely reason was the decision to take a gap year. Almost all went on to take up their places. Most of the tiny number who did not take up a place are now working.
Comparisons with other European countries show how low the United Kingdom's drop-out rate is. Italy's runs at over 60 per cent, Portugal's at about 50 per cent and Germany's and Holland's at almost 30 per cent. But these countries do not select students for entry to higher education.
Over one-third of those who left their initial choice of institution did so because they disliked their course. A tenth said that they left because they did not like their institution. Just over a tenth gave cost as the reason they left. Women were more likely to cite dislike of the institution and personal reasons than men, who were more likely to leave because of cost and exam failure.
Four out of five of those who took up a place were satisfied overall with their institution and course. The main area of dissatisfaction with the choice of institution was the high cost of living in that area. Dissatisfaction with the cost of living was highest in the Southeast, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
All students experienced some problems. The two main ones were exams/assignments and living on a low income. Two-thirds of students cited both, although poorer students were more likely to report problems in both areas.
Overall, students felt they had been well informed about most aspects of higher education, but the study identified gaps relating to course details and cost. Women, poor students and those at new universities were most likely to say they would have preferred to have had better information with which to make their choices.