The results of a national student survey make salutary reading, with courses and access at new and old universities coming under fire
Student dropout rates are falling in institutions with the worst retention records in recent years, new figures reveal.
Personal tutors providing support for new students in the first months of university are among the schemes helping to retain more students, according to the universities.
The trend emerges in the latest performance indicators for universities published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency this week. They indicate that fewer students are expected to leave before graduation at most of the institutions with the worst retention records.
Bolton University had the highest projected dropout rate for students entering in 2002-03, when it was still the Bolton Institute of Higher Education, with 31.9 per cent of students not expected to complete courses.
This figure compares with 35.8 per cent for 2001-02 entrants.
Napier University, with a dropout rate of 37 per cent last year, fell to 21 per cent in 2002-03. London Metropolitan University and the University of East London also reduced dropout rates.
Phil Lloyd, head of student recruitment and admissions at Bolton University, put Bolton's high dropout rates down to high numbers of non-traditional students enrolled at the institution. "It is no wonder that we lose just over twice the UK average - 32 per cent against 14 per cent.
It is, quite simply, the other side of the widening participation coin."
Mr Lloyd said: "We will be seeking to improve the numbers."
A spokesperson from Napier University said extra tuition had helped students complete courses.
He said: "This year we are introducing personal development tutors for each student and are encouraging greater social integration at an early stage."
Michael Thorne, UEL's vice-chancellor, said that the introduction of pastoral care for every student had helped improve his institution's dropout rate.
"We are delighted to see sustained year-on-year improvements in our retention and completion rates," Professor Thorne said. "But we are still not satisfied."
For the UK as a whole, the dropout rate had increased from 14.1 to 14.4 per cent in the latest figures. Meanwhile, attempts to draw more working-class students into the sector faltered last year, according to figures that show that the proportion of former state school pupils dipped at many research universities.
The indicators show that 86.8 per cent of young people entering university in 2003-04 were from state schools or colleges - down from 87.2 per cent the year before.
At Oxford University, the proportion of state school pupils dropped from 55.4 per cent to 53.8 per cent. At Cambridge University, it fell from 57.6 per cent to 56.9 per cent. Slight drops in the proportion of state school pupils were also recorded at University College London, Durham, Nottingham, Leeds, Warwick, York and Manchester universities.
But concerns have persisted about the figures. Michael Sterling, chair of the Russell Group, said: "Hesa has continued to use a method shown to be flawed... The consolation is that people haven't moved much against a benchmark that was rubbish last year."
He said that concerns centred on the use of more general Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff points rather than A-level grades to set benchmarks for institutions' performance.
Ironically, adjustments to benchmarks this year mean that even institutions that recruited fewer students from state schools in 2003-04 are now marginally closer to their notional "target" than in 2002-03.
Hesa stressed that any revisions to benchmarks reflected data changes, rather than a change in methodology.
But some research universities - including Bristol, Exeter and Birmingham - recorded an increase in the proportion of students recruited from state schools.
The Hesa figures also show that 99 per cent of students who entered Wolverhampton, Middlesex and Luton universities in 2003-04 were from state schools.
Michael Driscoll, chair of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, the umbrella body representing post-92 institutions, said: "If you look at raw performance, the commitment to widening participation is lodged in those institutions represented by the CMU."
Oxford University academics emerge as the most cost-effective in the country in attracting research grants, according to the latest research performance measures. According to the figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Oxford staff attract well over twice as much money in research income as the national average, in relation to the cost of their employment. York, Lancaster and Cranfield universities also do well in terms of how much research funding they earn. But the University of East Anglia emerges as the most cost-efficient producer of research students, creating more than twice the number of PhDs as the national average in relation to staff costs. Other successful PhD producers are Lancaster, Oxford and Cambridge.
'Our target is to improve our completion rate even further'
Teesside University believes it has mastered the balancing act of increasing its intake of non-traditional students while reducing the number of students who drop out, writes Olga Wojtas .
Graham Henderson, Teesside vice-chancellor, said: "It's fantastic. But we've set ourselves a target to improve our completion rates [further]. We're not complacent."
Its dropout rate has fallen 2.5 per cent over two years to 18.5 per cent, beating the Higher Education Statistics Agency benchmark of 20.4 per cent.
The number of young full-time undergraduates from low participation backgrounds has continued to rise, up from .1 per cent to 28.3 per cent.
One of the biggest improvements has been in the retention of mature full-time students, with only 10.8 per cent dropping out compared with a national average of 15.4 per cent.
The university has been targeting pupils as young as eight from non-traditional backgrounds to encourage them to consider university.
Two years ago, Teesside set up a university-wide retention team, with staff in each school to contact students informally if they are doing badly.
Professor Henderson said: "Often they are failing not because they are not capable but because something has happened. If you're there to pick them up, you can keep them going."
Teesside also has a permanent drop-in study skills centre that offers help with literacy, numeracy, essay writing and library research.