A quarter of university dropouts abandon their studies because they have chosen the wrong course, according to a study carried out for the Department for Education and Skills.
The study by Warwick University's Institute of Employment Studies casts doubt on higher education minister Margaret Hodge's claims that Mickey Mouse courses that lack rigour are responsible for students dropping out.
The survey found that 24 per cent of dropouts cited a "mistaken choice of course", 18 per cent blamed "financial problems directly related to participation in higher education", and 14 per cent cited personal problems.
The report shifts the focus firmly to the application process, suggesting that misinformation and poor advice in schools and the clearing process are the main reasons for students making wrong choices.
"Many respondents felt that they had been pushed by their schools to enter university," say authors Rhys Davies and Peter Elias. "They felt they would have benefited from a year out of education to think about their choices more carefully and to enter higher education with greater maturity."
The report said that dropouts criticised their schools for failing to present vocational courses as a viable alternative to university. It also said that the application system was causing problems.
"Respondents are critical of a system of applying to university where course choices were based on predicted grades rather than actual performance." This meant that if they did better than predicted they had to accept places on courses that were, in effect, not their first choices.
The study's authors called for more research into the clearing process, after suggestions that it was pushing students on to the wrong courses.
"Those respondents who entered higher education through the clearing process were more likely to report mistaken choice of course and mistaken choice of institution as influences on their decision to withdraw."
The research, which surveyed dropouts from both 1996-97, when grants were available, and from 1998-99, when grants were scrapped and tuition fees introduced, found that the funding changes had not affected dropout rates significantly.
"However, those for whom student loans were the main source of income were more likely to report that they had withdrawn due to financial problems compared to those whose main source of income was derived from grants."