Fewer students are dropping out of UK universities but the improvement is unlikely to continue if top-up fees are introduced without bigger maintenance grants, vice-chancellors have warned.
Dropout rates have improved slightly to 15 per cent, from 16 per cent last year, according to the annual higher education performance indicators, published on Thursday. The proportion of underrepresented students in higher education has remained constant, with a slight improvement among students from low social classes.
Vice-chancellors welcomed the figures but stressed that there had to be more money for maintenance grants - rather than fee waivers - to continue the trend under government plans to introduce £3,000 a year tuition charges from 2006.
While dropout rates have improved overall, 12 institutions have dropout rates of more than 25 per cent, with students neither qualifying nor transferring to another institution. These universities generally excel at attracting students from underrepresented groups.
They include the University of North London and London Guildhall University - which have since merged to become London Metropolitan University - London South Bank University, the Bolton Institute of Higher Education, the University of East London and Thames Valley University.
This week, the Coalition of Modern Universities met education secretary Charles Clarke to press for more money to support poor students while they study. Under proposals being considered by the government, graduates from poor families would pay no fees or lower fees than those from rich families. The CMU wants this fee waiver to be redirected to maintenance grants.
Michael Driscoll, chairman of the CMU and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, which has a 25 per cent dropout rate, said: "All the work we do reveals that decisions about dropping out are made around pressure to get a job.
"The more upfront cash available to students, the better. If we maximise that, so students can pay for accommodation and books and their other needs, I am absolutely sure that we will see dropout rates plummet."
His comments were supported by Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Met, who said: "Our students take risks in coming to university - much more so than the traditional middle-class 18-year-olds - and sometimes things go wrong. Financial factors are one of those things."
The higher education bill to introduce fees, due to be published in January, will not include maintenance grants for poor students. Detailed plans for the grants will be published simultaneously in secondary legislation.
Higher education minister Alan Johnson welcomed the performance indicator figures.
He said: "It is encouraging that more students are finishing their courses despite more students going to university. We already have one of the best completion rates in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), so to make an improvement is a real achievement.
"It is also good news that most universities are making positive progress on their access benchmarks. But there is still a lot more to do. The Office for Fair Access and the creation of access agreements will ensure that the government's and universities' drive to widen participation will continue."
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said:
"Overall, the figures show very little change from last year, showing that it takes time to bring about alterations in a large system. However, at a time when the core unit of resource for teaching has continued to decline, the sector is doing very well to maintain its performance."
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which produced the figures, said: "I welcome the small reduction in dropout rates for full-time students. But there is no cause for complacency. Overall, the figures show relatively little change on last year. This underlines the scale of the task facing universities and colleges as, for example, they tackle the problems of recruiting more students with potential from poorer backgrounds."
Top five university dropout rates
Drop-out rate University of North London 43% 39% London Guildhall University 42% 35% London South Bank University 36% 34% University of East London 42% 29% Thames Valley University 34% 28%
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