Cutting dropout rates could backfire on the government clampdown on student numbers, academics have warned, writes Alison Goddard.
Charles Clarke, the education secretary, last week ordered funding chiefs to put the brakes on recruitment to degree courses in the run-up to the introduction of top-up fees.
Recruitment has been buoyant and further growth is expected up to 2006.
Much of the projected expansion will come from an expected growth in the number of school-leavers and improved exam results.
Figures released this week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency underline the situation. They show that the number of people starting courses in autumn 2002 leapt 4.2 per cent, taking student numbers to 2.1 million.
Mr Clarke demanded a report on student recruitment from the Higher Education Funding Council for England because he was worried that there might be too little cash to support the extra students in 2005-06.
He also called on universities to cut their non-completion rates. He said he wanted financial support to be targeted at students most at risk of dropping out, typically those with low entrance qualifications.
This week, admissions staff pledged to help the funding council with its report but warned that cutting dropout rates could exacerbate overrecruitment.
Jane Nelson, chair of the Admissions Practitioners' Group and academic registrar at Wolverhampton University, said: "Working out how to provide early warning of numbers will be quite tricky.
"Mr Clarke seeks an improvement in retention rates: if achieved, this alone will increase the size of the overall student population, in general, and the number of students eligible for maximum support, in particular, given that they are more likely to drop out.
"There is a timing problem here as universities do not know for certain which students are going to return until well after we have given firm commitments to admit new students."
The Hesa figures show that students are switching from part-time to full-time study. Some 58 per cent of first-year students were studying full time, up from 56 per cent the previous year.
Full-time students from less well-off families will be eligible for maintenance grants from this year and any growth in their numbers will increase the pressure on the student-support budget.