Male students from regions with high unemployment are more likely to drop out of university before finishing their courses than those from more affluent areas, according to new research.
The findings came as a surprise to researchers at the University of Warwick, who had expected to find the opposite. "A possible explanation is that the aspirations you have are not influenced by the national unemployment rate but by the local one. You wonder whether it is worth doing a second and a third year of study when you could be unemployed at the end of it," said Robin Naylor, who completed the work with fellow economist Jeremy Smith.
The findings suggest that institutions aiming for a low drop-out rate in the funding council performance indicators - the first set is due to be published in two weeks' time - would do well to recruit from more affluent areas. The researchers looked at the history of some 100,000 students who were due to graduate from a three-year full-time degree in 1993. They took into account factors including subject studied, entry qualifications, social class, sex, type of school attended and age.
They found that language students were more likely to drop out than engineers and lawyers. Students who had taken a combination of A levels that did not prepare them well for their degree subject - for example, those attempting a physics degree without maths A level - were also more likely to drop out.
However, researchers found that male students who attended independent schools were more likely to drop out than those from local education authority schools. This finding is consistent with earlier work that found that students from state schools do better at university than those from independent schools.
Roderick Floud, vice-president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "The reasons for non-completion are very complex and any analysis is welcome. Universities exist to enhance opportunities for the widest range of students and to help them to succeed, whatever their socio-economic origins."
The funding councils might be forced to modify the performance indicators as a result of the Warwick research.
The performance indicators will adjust institutional progression rates to take account of social class. Three measures will be used: occupation of the main breadwinner; postcode type of the family home; whether a student went to a state or independent school.
The funding councils had considered including regional unemployment rates in the performance indicators when they were devised a year ago. "It is something we intend to look at to see whether it is important. It is complicated because it is both the unemployment rate of the home region and the region where the university is sited that are potentially important," said Judy Akinbolu, who works on performance indicators for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Dr Naylor said: "One thing we haven't done is see whether the unemployment rate in the university region has an effect on drop-outs. It may be that it could have a balancing effect so that, say, female students studying in an area with high unemployment are less likely to drop out." He intends to continue research on this topic.
"It is refreshing to hear the funding councils say that these performance indicators will evolve over time," Dr Naylor added. However, he favours handing responsibility for producing performance indicators to an independent body such as the Royal Statistical Society.
Doctoral drop-outs, page 34