The latest performance indicators show varied dropout rates and social exclusivity. Alison Goddard reports on plans for more balance.
Education secretary Estelle Morris is calling on funding chiefs to cut dropout rates as the latest performance indicators for 1998-99 show that one in five students is dropping out at some institutions.
Mature students are affected worst. Nationally 16 per cent drop out compared with 8 per cent of young students. In one in eight institutions, more than 20 per cent of mature students do not make the second year.
At the University of North London and at South Bank University, 22 per cent of all students who enrolled in full-time courses in autumn 1998 were not in higher education a year later, according to data issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
However, a spokeswoman for the University of North London said: "The indicators are not an accurate representation of the problem or a helpful contribution to the necessary discussion."
At Thames Valley University, 21 per cent dropped out and 7 per cent transferred to another institution.
All three universities significantly exceeded their benchmark - the percentage of people who could be expected to drop out given the institution's entry requirements and subject mix.
A spokesman for Thames Valley University, which failed a Quality Assurance Agency inspection in 1998, said: "1998-99 was not a terribly happy year. People must have decided to go elsewhere. Universities who are pursuing a mission of widening participation face a bigger challenge."
Nationally, 17 per cent of students are expected not to get any qualification. Some 80 per cent of students who start a first degree are expected to get it eventually, while 3 per cent leave with a sub-degree qualification.
Last month, Ms Morris asked Hefce to develop "a longer-term strategic plan on retention, with clear annual milestones for the period 2002-10". The plan, due to be completed by the end of January, should also contain a target for non-completion.
In the education secretary's annual letter to Hefce, Ms Morris wrote:
"Maintaining a focus on retention will be important as institutions increase the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds and I will expect the council to provide quarterly progress reports... (on) individual institutions that are falling short of the benchmark and (on) the sector as a whole."
Ms Morris also called for targets to be set in other areas: "An important element of progressing towards the 50 per cent participation target will be ensuring that all institutions have sound widening participation targets... with action taken quickly where necessary to ensure the targets are met.
"We need to ensure fair access to higher education. That means reducing the wide variation in performance between institutions with respect to the council's three access performance indicators (percentage from state schools, percentage from lower social classes and percentage from low-participation neighbourhoods)... I look to the council to propose to the department, by January 2002, a target for fair access that applies to the sector as a whole."
Funding chiefs want to clarify what Ms Morris means by "fair access" and whether or not it will take into account the entry requirement and subject mix of different institutions in the way that benchmarks do.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of Hefce, said: "Universities and colleges recognise that to achieve progress towards the government's (50 per cent participation by 2010) target... they need to develop clear targets and action plans. Today's figures will help them to renew such efforts."
Geoff Layer, a member of the funding council's Action on Access team and professor of lifelong learning at the University of Bradford, said: "The funding council and the Department for Education and Skills have invested in building for change but that takes time to feed through. They have funded activity in inner cities, promoting higher education to young people. We also have a shift in emphasis to retention - the minister wants universities and colleges to be welcoming places in which students can succeed."
About one-third of young people live in low-participation areas. Nationally, 12 per cent of young entrants and 14 per cent of mature entrants to first-degree courses were from these areas in 1999-2000. The funding council uses this measure to reward institutions that do well at widening access. Institutions get a 5 per cent funding premium for each of these students.
The performance indicators show that some 35 universities and colleges are still significantly under-recruiting students from poor areas. The worst of these offenders - the University of Exeter - took just 5 per cent from this group against a benchmark of 10 per cent. Institutions with fewer than 1,000 students were excluded from the table.
All 35 institutions that significantly under-performed were in the south of England. The 25 institutions that took more students from poor areas than expected were in the Midlands, the North, Scotland and Wales.
The funding council is developing a second benchmark that will take into account any locality effects. It will be calculated for each institution and will be published with this week's data on Hefce's website in February.
However, any benchmark disguises the broad variation between access to various institutions. While a third of young people live in low-participation areas, only one university - Paisley - recruits more than a third from poor areas. A third of institutions took less than 10 per cent of their students from poor areas.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are expected to take only 7 per cent of their students from poor areas but they failed even to achieve this, recording actual rates of 6 per cent.
* The figures for Scotland show that the proportion of young higher-education entrants from state schools continues to rise, from 81 per cent to 84 per cent between 1997 and 1999, writes Olga Wojtas.
Scotland is also a leader in wider access: 18 per cent of young full-time undergraduate entrants come from low-participation areas, compared with a United Kingdom average of 13 per cent.
John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, said the indicators were proving useful to the sector's administrators and to institutions to compare performance in key policy areas.
The performance indicators also included: resumption of study after a year out; the typical time taken to achieve a qualification; and a research efficiency measure.
Full details at www.hefce.ac.uk