High numbers of students dropped out of degree courses at the former University of North London because of its policy to admit students without formal qualifications who would not be accepted by other universities, a new report suggests.
The high dropout rate underlines the "price" paid by an institution aiming to widen access to poorly qualified students, the report says.
The report for London Metropolitan University on the dramatically different dropout rates of its two constituent parts - the former UNL and the former London Guildhall University - reveals that UNL admitted almost 200 students without conventional entry qualifications in 2000-01, compared with fewer than 70 at LGU.
An analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute confirms that UNL admitted 113 students in 2000-01 whose highest qualification was at GCSE level, compared with 26 at LGU. UNL also admitted 70 mature students on the basis of their unmeasured "previous experience" alone.
"It is possible that if the open-access philosophy at UNL is allowing students to enter with lower levels of commitment and motivation, this could be contributing to the higher rates of first-year non-completion," says the report by Bahram Bekhradnia, Hepi director.
The report shows that at first glance, LGU and UNL had similar student profiles in terms of prior qualifications and social class; this made it hard to explain why UNL saw 22 per cent of its students drop out before the end of the first year in 2001-02, compared with 15 per cent at LGU.
"Despite the apparent similarities of their student bodies, the two universities were very different in their philosophies and academic approaches," says the report, Non-completion Rates at the University of North London and London Guildhall University: A Case Study , It adds that UNL admitted far more students outside the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service process and "a remarkably high proportion of students were drawn from the immediate locality".
Some 13 of the 15 postcode areas with the highest numbers of recruited students were close to UNL. "This suggests that UNL might have been taking on a higher proportion of entrants who might not have applied elsewhere - and indeed might not have been accepted had they applied - and may have a higher propensity not to complete."
The report says its findings are speculative and require further research, but it concludes that much higher dropout rates in the US were attributed to the "much greater open-access ethos there".
"It appears that similar differences in philosophy may have been at work between UNL and LGU, which would go some way to making clear unexplained differences in non-completion.
"Open access has a price, which is paid by institutions with the greatest commitment to widening participation."
Bob Aylett, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at London Met, said the university's most recent dropout figure was 28 per cent over three years, against a benchmark of 24 per cent, compared with "figures of more than 30 per cent for UNL in the past".
He said the university had vastly enhanced its student inductions, implemented new support systems and redesigned its undergraduate scheme of study. He was confident it would meet its benchmark next year.