Vice-chancellors are preparing to tackle funding council chiefs over drop-out rates.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is preparing to release drop-out figures based on a narrowly-focussed formula.
HEFCE statisticians, keen to produce "clean" data on progression and drop-out rates, have included only home full-time first degree students in their calculations. Students who go to another university are not counted as drop-outs, but those who take a break for more than a year or who move on to further education are.
The information will be used by the government to revise drop-out rate estimates of 19 per cent, based on full-time undergraduate figures from 1995/96.
But vice-chancellors are warning that anything short of a sophisticated system that reflects the more flexible nature of learning today and tracks all students throughout lifelong learning will prove useless and damaging.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is seeking urgent talks with HEFCE and the Higher Education Statistics Agency in an effort to come up with an accurate and workable definition of a "drop-out".
The CVCP is worried that unsophisticated definitions and crude methods for monitoring learning activity will be built into a funding formula or used by politicians or the media to paint a bleak picture of performance.
A spokesman said: "We want to find a way of analysing student movements that is fair and takes account of when someone has fallen out of the system for understandable reasons. We want to move quickly on this, because it is an issue that is high on the widening-participation agenda."
The CVCP is under pressure from the Coalition of Modern Universities, representing the interests of new universities, to take the funding council to task.
Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of the CVCP's information systems sector group, said any system had to reflect the shift towards modular courses, credit accumulation, and lifelong learning.
"The coalition will be pushing home the point that management information systems must be upgraded to properly keep track of students' movements. It is bad enough being beaten up by newspaper league tables, but both institutions and students could suffer if the funding council does not take a more sophisticated approach," she said.
Michael Stirling, vice-chancellor of Brunel University and chairman of HESA, said what HEFCE was doing was "acceptably factual", but a full-blown tracking system was "a prerequisite to getting any meaningful data".
The complications of coming up with a more sophisticated model, however, have already left one expert group baffled. Because of "technical difficulties", HESA's higher education management statistics group has called a halt to its own efforts to produce a formula that would follow the movement of all students.