Nearly one in every five Australian university students quits before qualifying for a degree, an Education Department study has revealed.
Dropping out is costly both for the 130,000 students who abandon courses every year and for their universities. As most dropouts have deferred their fees under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, they leave owing thousands of dollars that they must pay off through the tax system.
Universities and academics also spend time and money enrolling these students. The average cost per student is A$11,000 (£4,246) a year and up, so Australian higher education faces a loss estimated at up to A$3 billion a year.
Far from trying to stem the dropout rate - which in some universities amounts to almost a third of students each year - most vice-chancellors appear to be taking little action.
The attrition rate for all domestic Australian students in 2002 was 18.5 per cent. But the figures ranged from just under 11 per cent for the University of Melbourne to 31 per cent for the Northern Territory University (now known as Charles Darwin).
The dropout rate also varies within courses and among different groups of students. Researchers say that attrition rates are affected by the students' age, citizenship status, the level of qualification and previous experience of higher education.
Peter McPhee, Melbourne's deputy vice-chancellor, said many students still found the transition to university difficult - twice as many Australians drop out in their first year as in their second or subsequent years.
Professor McPhee believes a contributing factor to the decline in dropouts at Melbourne - from a 21 per cent high in 1999 - is the increasing attention faculties and student services pay to transition programmes and to identifying and assisting students who are at risk of failure.
Having to pay the full cost of tuition appears to encourage students to remain at university. The overall dropout rate for fee-paying foreign students is well below that for Australians, who face much lower charges.
First-year Australian undergraduates had dropout rates of 21 per cent, compared with 18 per cent for international students while the rate for local first-year postgraduates was per cent, in contrast to 20 per cent for foreigners.
"The fact that postgraduates already have a degree and may be interested in undertaking modules and whole courses (rather than entire degrees), greater mobility of postgraduates across institutions, and differences in study patterns may be factors," the researchers say.