Dropout rates of almost 50 per cent have been identified by teaching quality inspectors at Liverpool John Moores University.
The Quality Assurance Agency highlighted students' "financial, motivational and academic" problems. LJMU said that students joining access universities, often through clearing, can be "overwhelmed" and added that financial hardship was seriously harming completion rates.
A QAA subject review report on teaching in general engineering at LJMU, published this week, says that just 51 per cent of undergraduates who began degree courses in 1997 picked up a degree and only 4 per cent gained a diploma.
On masters engineering degrees, 71 per cent of those who enrolled in 1997 completed their programmes within a year of starting, but only 52 per cent of those who enrolled in 1998 finished the course. "The assessors consider these rates to be low," the report says.
The QAA gave the programmes a quality assessment grade of two out of four - indicating that "significant improvement could be made" - in the "student progression and achievement" inspection category. It criticised first-year non-completion rates. "Reasons cited for withdrawal are personal, including financial, motivational and academic," the report says.
LJMU had adopted strategies to address high non-completion rates, it says. These include "increased guidance during clearing to ensure a more effective match of student with programme, and the monitoring of progressI using small-group tutorials".
"It is too early to tell how effective these strategies will be in addressing this issue," it says.
LJMU's engineering courses have been declining in popularity. Applications fell from 500 in 1997-98 to 355 in 2000-01, with enrolments dropping from 246 in 1997 to 107 in 2000. Just 31 per cent of entrants to the technology management degree in 2000 had A-level points scores above 12, the equivalent of three D grades.
"Some data relating to entry qualifications are listed as 'missing' in (the university's) self-assessment," the report says.
The inspectors said that students' degree classifications "represented a satisfactory level of achievement in relation to the intake profile", with 5 per cent of students gaining first-class honours. But the report highlights external examiners' concerns about "the 'tail' of students struggling for pass degrees after years of effort".
The report gives the quality of teaching on the engineering courses an overall grade of 18 out of 24. The quality of student support and guidance won it the top grade of four out of four.
An LJMU spokeswoman said that non-completion was a "great concern" but stressed that the QAA report concentrated on maritime and technology management courses and was not indicative of engineering generally.
"We are an access university, and as such we are giving people a chance to study who may find the experience overwhelming for various reasons. I would add that the most damaging element for our students is finance, which increasingly impacts upon their ability to complete their courses as more and more of them are forced to take part-time work."
Similar problems were identified on information management courses at the University of North London.
The QAA said that all recruitment to the courses had been through clearing, that progression rates were "poor" and progression data unclear, and that "significant improvement could be made" in the area of student progression and achievement.