DROP-OUT rates for every institution in England and Wales will be published next year in a new effort to plot students' progress through university.
Data on non-completion, compiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is now with universities for checking before being made available.
But unofficial figures will come out next week in the 1999 PUSH Guide to Which University.
These figures, which claim nearly one in five students dropped out of university or failed his or her degree last year, have already come under fire from statisticians across the sector.
A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals called them "partial, totally misleading and potentially very damaging to a number of universities". He said more than half the students counted as dropping out returned to higher education within a year.
Hefce analysts say they fail to take into account the many different ways students travel through the system, including students who come back into higher education at a later date, drop out to change to a different length course or go to a different institution.
Dennis Barrington-Light, head of student records and statistics at Cambridge University, has sent an email to colleagues in all other universities warning them against the guide's methodology.
Using data collected by the Higher Education Statistical Agency for about 50 institutions, the guide shows last year's average "flunk rate" was 19 per cent. And it estimates the cost to the taxpayer of these failures at Pounds 360 million.
This includes a drop-out rate at Cambridge University of 11 per cent. But Mr Barrington-Light said this was "absolutely bizarre".
He said other institutions would also be in for a shock once they saw the table, which shows some with "flunk rates" of up to 39 per cent.
The "flunk rate" is the percentage difference between the number of students who started three-year courses in 1994 and the number who graduated in 1997.
But at Cambridge many students start on three-year courses and, depending on the specialism they choose in their second year, later change to four years. The university estimates its true drop-out rate to be about 3.5 per cent, close to the figure recently submitted for approval by Hefce.
Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster and a spokesman for the Coalition of Modern Universities, said a reasonably high drop-out rate was to be expected if institutions made an effort to widen participation.
New universities took more students through foundation courses and clearing and from non-traditional and poorer backgrounds, which meant risks were higher.
He found the one in five figure "unfortunate but not surprising". His own institution had a drop-out rate of about 10 per cent, not including those who switched course or returned after a break.
Mantz Yorke, professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University, who estimated the cost of non-completion in 1994-95 to be about Pounds 90 million a year, said the PUSH estimate failed to take into account the flow of students in and out of HE. He said this movement was likely to increase. "The way student funding is going, the pattern of participation will blur between full and part-time. Then phrases like drop out and non-completion become more difficult to pin down."