Over the next few days university registries will be waiting anxiously to see how many of their old and new students fail to enrol. But this wastage is far from unavoidable, even with the advent of mass higher education.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals published the findings of its investigation into student drop-out rates this summer. It suggested that about 40,000, or one in 20 students left their courses in 1992/93, and that of these 25,000 did so for "non-academic" reasons. It is widely assumed that increased wastage rates are an inevitable side effect of the transition from a mass to an elite system of higher education, the "evidence" being the greater non-completion rates of countries with high-volume participation. In reality, this trend is inevitable only insofar as the United Kingdom fails to learn from the mistakes of other countries making this transition, namely that elite and mass education are different entities, and the latter is not simply the former extended to a greater number of people.
It is notoriously difficult to establish the numbers of students who drop out of higher education, let alone to make assertions about their motives. The scepticism with which any pronouncements on wastage are greeted is a disincentive to research on the subject, and credit is due to those institutions which undertake it.
Poverty is an increasingly significant factor in drop-out studies, but the evidence suggests that students leaving their courses are not only under- resourced, but also frequently misinformed, under-motivated and ill-prepared for the experience of higher education. It is difficult to express such views without seeming to pathologise new participants or to oppose access. The fault lies not with students themselves, but with a programme for expansion which has set many of them up to fail, by creating the economic conditions to drive them into a system ill-prepared - not least of all financially - for their arrival. New higher education ought, after all, to be as responsive to the needs and interests of new participants as the elite system was to middle class school-leavers with traditional qualifications.
Universities have an obligation to ensure that an open door does not becoming a revolving door for so-called "non-traditional" higher education students, but they also have a pressing financial incentive to retain students if even short-term planning is to be possible. In order to retain students, institutions need to ascertain that promotional materials accurately reflect course content, that there is effective tracking of students early on, that students understand and agree to the level of commitment required for their programmes and that student's individual study needs are identified and addressed at the outset.
Non-completion needs to be tackled collectively because individual universities will be unwilling to identify themselves as high-wastage institutions. The challenge is to buck the international trend by which mass participation results in lower rates of completion, by finding the money and in some cases the political will to provide the learning environment needed to retain the students on whom recent expansion has been predicated. It is time for institutions, the funding councils and the Department for Education and Employment to address the issue of student retention on a national basis, before directors of finance in British universities have to plan their budgets around 30 per cent wastage rates.
Emma Westcott is an education policy researcher with the Association of University Teachers, writing in a personal capacity.