The English funding council is launching a study to find out if more students are dropping out of degree courses. It has put details of a research study out to tender and bids have to be in by January 12.
"There is evidence, much of which is anecdotal, that the level of non-completion of undergraduates has been increasing," said council spokesman Roger Grinyer. "We want to find out whether this is true and if so, what is the extent, nature, cause and cost of non-completion."
The official drop-out rate for full-time and sandwich undergraduates from the Department of Education and Employment is 17 per cent. In other words, one in six students is dropping out. That figure - which is an estimate for the 1992/93 academic year - is double the 7 to 8 per cent rate of the old universities - the only figure previously available. It represents an aggregate of the sector as a whole (polytechnics had higher drop-out rates than the old universities) and is higher than the rates in some student union surveys.
Drop-out figures are notoriously hard to pin down because their definition is so problematic. In the new freewheeling world of mass higher education students may quit for a year or switch their chosen subject, leaving their mark on the recorded figures while in fact remaining in the system or returning to it eventually. Institutions are reluctant also to give figures for fear of looking bad.
Robert Smith, vice chancellor of Kingston University, would not divulge statistics for his institution. "The numbers are not sufficiently reliable for me to give a quote to the press," he said. But he did say they were not far off the national figure.
The question for the funding council is whether any extra factors are boosting drop-out rates further. It also wants to know what is meant by "non-completion" in the context of a much broader student mix and the need to increase access. As Mr Grinyer explained: "Have students really dropped out or have they changed course and gone elsewhere?" At the moment there is no direct link between funding and output, so what individual universities receive does not depend on students' exam results, completion rates or the jobs they go on to. But output may become part of a future funding method. The council wants the study to look at how drop-out rates might be used in a new funding system to determine the money individual institutions receive.
Some of today's debate on drop-outs is based on surveys of student financial hardship conducted by student unions which object to the Government's new emphasis on loans at the expense of grants. But the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals jumped into the controversy too this summer when it said financial pressures appeared to be forcing more students out of higher education.
Finding that 40,000 students dropped out of university in 1992/93, a rise of almost 25 per cent over the previous year, it said that more than half of these left for other than academic reasons.
Earlier in the year Graeme Davies, former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said it looked as though people were taking career decisions to break their courses. "My guess is that the reasons are financial, with people building up debts, looking round and saying 'I have to do something about this'," he said.
From this year the funding council is asking institutions to record students withdrawing from courses for which they are registered, rather than simply withdrawals in a given academic year. That effectively closes a loophole which enabled institutions to under-report drop-outs.