Tens of thousands of students each year might finish their courses if they had better advice before and after they enter higher education.
Mantz Yorke, professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University, found 39 per cent of full-time students who left their course did so because they chose the wrong field of study. The second most common reason (37 per cent) was that the programme was not what students had expected. Financial reasons were also cited by 37 per cent.
Professor Yorke, director of the university's centre for higher education development, yesterday gave a keynote address to the third United Kingdom conference on student wellbeing at Glasgow University. He revealed that an estimated 65,000 students withdrew from higher education courses in England in 1994-95, two-thirds of them from first year.
He has surveyed almost 2,500 students who did not finish their courses, but stressed that his findings cannot be equated with drop-out rates because the students may have taken up courses elsewhere.
Professor Yorke said the numbers saying they had made wrong choices raised questions about the services available to prospective applicants. Increasing modularisation probably meant early guidance in institutions was also important, he said.
But he stressed that students had to take responsibility for planning. "What you are good at in school is not necessarily what you are good at in university." He said there is some evidence of students entering higher education without thinking hard about why.
Professor Yorke found that part-time students faced different pressures. The most common reasons for part-time students leaving their courses were demands of work (52 per cent), needs of dependents (24 per cent) and financial pressures (23 per cent). Only 7 per cent said they had chosen the wrong field.