Universities are losing students without making any attempt to stop them dropping out, a survey suggests.
In a poll of 460 students who had dropped out or were considering doing so, nearly half who had left claimed that their institutions had done nothing to persuade them to stay.
The survey, carried out for The Open University by the internet forum The Student Room, also found that of those who had dropped out, about half did not like their course, a third did not like university life, and four in ten quit because of personal issues.
Asked whether their university had encouraged them to stay on, 46 per cent said "no".
The findings indicate that students considering dropping out tend to seek advice from outside the higher education system.
Family and friends were the first port of call when it came to guidance, and more students said they did not consult anyone (34 per cent) than turned to university staff for help (28 per cent). Most students who left (64 per cent) did so during their first year.
The survey comes as work begins on a new national project that could ultimately see every student in the country who drops out of university contacted and offered impartial advice, including access to a national helpline.
The OU is leading the initiative, called Back on Course, which is being funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. A pilot is under way in the north-west of England.
Christina Lloyd, head of teaching and learner support at the OU, said: "A significant number of universities have mechanisms in place to support students who are thinking of dropping out.
"There is a lot of effort that is going on in the sector, but there is still a significant dropout rate.
"The idea of Back on Course is for institutions to work in partnership to pick up potential or actual dropouts and offer impartial advice to identify what might best suit those individuals."
The advantage of independent advice, she said, was that students would receive support tailored to their own circumstances, rather than whatever happened to be available at their particular institution.
"If, having exhausted its own attempts to keep a student on, a university believes a student will be leaving, their details will be passed to the scheme," Dr Lloyd explained.
"The student will receive a pack of information from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and the project will contact students to discuss their plans and offer support and guidance."
A 2008 study by the University of Worcester found that most students who left the university during their first term did not consult anyone at the institution before quitting.
Nationally, 9 per cent of students - a total of 28,785 - who started full-time first degrees in 2006-07 did not complete their first year, but the UK's dropout rate compares favourably with most other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.