A wholesale change in the way that higher education treats students who drop out of courses was urged this week.
Leaving a degree course early should not be seen as a failure for students, concludes a major study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which argues that funds should be allocated for course units rather than for years of study.
The study found that students who drop out, particularly those from poor backgrounds, are stigmatised by the label. Yet most told the researchers that they had benefited from the experience and said that they would make better use of university in the future.
Jocey Quinn, a researcher at Exeter University and lead author of the report, said: "It's not just a question of universities doing something, the whole policy and structure of higher education needs to change.
"All the decisions made, alongside the prioritisation and funding, work to deliver a static system that emphasises people going to university when they are young and staying for three years. It penalises those who break that mould and want flexibility."
Dr Quinn said academic institutions were not to blame for labelling students who drop out as a problem because they are financially penalised.
The report recommends that government funding and student fees are paid for the units students complete rather than for years of study.
It also calls for courses with multiple entry and exit points; effective credit-transfer schemes; good childcare provision; and clear guidance for students at all stages of their academic careers.
The researchers interviewed ex-students, staff, members of the local community and employers for the report, From Life Crisis to Lifelong Learning: Rethinking Working-Class "Drop Out" from Higher Education , and focused on Staffordshire, Glamorgan, Ulster and Paisley universities.