Up to one in four full-time degree students at English institutions drops out before completing their courses, according to figures compiled by The THES.
The figure, which is based on funding council statistics sent to universities, is far higher than previous calculations, given that it takes into account students who transfer to other institutions. Statistics produced for the Department for Education and Employment based on full-time undergraduate figures for 1995-96 - and which do not include students who transfer to another institution - put the figure at 19 per cent.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has been working on drop-out, or non-completion, rates for the past three years. It has limited its calculations to full-time degree students. The figures pre-date the introduction of tuition fees this academic year.
Using data supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, HEFCE has tracked individual students through the higher education system between 1994 and 1997. Hesa's individual "student identifier" and student dates of birth have allowed the funding council to identify which students transferred to another institution, so that they were not included as drop-outs. Those who left to go into further education or to take a break of a year or more did count as drop-outs.
Six months ago, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone endorsed the study: "I welcome the work that HEFCE is carrying out with statisticians in the DfEE to find better ways of measuring drop-out and to improve our understanding of how it is related to factors such as age, gender, social class, subject and entry qualifications."
HEFCE supplied each institution with its drop-out rate last year. Over a period of months The THES has contacted universities for their individual figures. None of those contacted disputed the figure sent to it by the funding council.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at HEFCE, was unable to confirm the national drop-out rates. "We are still reviewing the responses from institutions about their data," he said. "However, the range of non-completion is very wide, for good reason. Non-completion is very closely related to the educational and social background of students and the subjects they study. It is also clear that non-completion in England is very much lower on average than that in many other countries."
The figures vary widely between institutions depending on the intake of students and the mix of subjects available. For example, students with good A-level grades are less likely to drop out. Likewise those studying medicine have high completion rates.
The non-completion rates are included in the performance indicators now being sent by HEFCE to each English and Welsh institutions for consultation. To reflect the variation due to student intake and subject mix, HEFCE is producing context statistics or "adjusted sector outcomes" alongside the drop-out rates. The results for any institution can therefore be compared with the average for similar institutions.
Following the consultation, HEFCE will issue official performance indicators for each university. These will be considered alongside those for widening participation.
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