Universities and colleges need to provide more support for students to combat growing dropout levels, according to a report from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
Staying or Leaving the Course says that non-traditional students such as part- time adult returners are in particular need of learning, social and financial support.
And the report criticises funding arrangements for unfairly penalising institutions for dropouts when the reasons for dropping out are complex, varied and far from clear.
The report, by NIACE's senior research and development officer Veronica McGivney, is based on statistics and evidence gathered from 30 higher and further education institutions during the spring and summer last year.
Dr McGivney says that mature students with non-academic backgrounds are not necessarily more likely to dropout, but says that they are more likely to benefit from extra support, particularly in higher education where services have been stretched by the growth in numbers and funding cuts.
She says that far too many students receive little or no advice before starting a course, find course contents and workloads more demanding than they anticipated, and often fail to tell institutions that they are leaving or to give the real reasons for their departures.
She warns that a failure to address non-completion and course withdrawal will result in harsh financial penalties for institutions because current policy means they lose a proportion of their central funding when students leave courses prematurely.
Dr McGivney's report is due to be published in the next few weeks.