Universities have achieved modest improvements in dropout rates in the past year.
The annual performance indicators from Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 8.8 per cent of students who began full-time first degrees in 2004 dropped out of higher education within the year, compared with 9.5 per cent in the previous year.
Between 1999, when the indicators were first published, and 2004, the national dropout rate ranged between 16 and 18 per cent. But the method of calculating the figures was changed in 2004; under the old method, the dropout rate for the past year would be about 16 per cent.
Despite the general improvement, loss of students remains a cause for concern among the ten universities with the worst non-completion rates, who lost 18.3 per cent of their students on average.
Bolton University has the highest dropout rate among English institutions, at 18.4 per cent. Its deputy vice-chancellor, Peter Marsh, said Bolton had a "challenging intake", with mature students accounting for 70 per cent of its undergraduates and half studying part-time and thus not covered by Hesa's statistics.
"We recognise that we need to do more," he said. Dr Marsh noted that Bolton has appointed a director of retention, among several other measures to keep students studying.
"We've appointed student support officers for each school, who are ex graduates, to act as friendly faces for students in difficulty," Dr Marsh added.
Each school now has a principal lecturer with special responsibility for retention who monitors students' attendance and contacts them if they start missing lectures.
Dropout rates are higher among students who gain places through clearing, so Bolton has targeted bursaries and scholarships on students who list the university as their first choice.
Paisley University, where 21.8 per cent of first-year students drop out, has the second-highest rate of attrition in the UK, after Bell College in Lanarkshire. The two are due to merge this year.
A spokesperson for Paisley said the Hesa statistics were misleading because they excluded part-timers, who account for 60 per cent of its students.
"A recent initiative includes guidance for students on full-time courses who wish to transfer to part-time study due to family or other commitments. The non- continuation figures published by Hesa do not reflect students who may come back to study via this route," the spokesperson added.
Dropout rates are particularly high in Scotland and Wales: among the ten institutions in the UK with the worst retention rates, four are Scottish and three are located in Wales.
Conversely, two Scottish universities, St Andrews and Stirling, are ranked among those universities with the lowest dropout rates, with rates of 2 and 2.8 per cent respectively.
A spokesperson from Stirling University attributed its success in part to a semester system and modular degree programmes.
"At undergraduate level, there are almost 300 degree combinations, and in the first two years there are few restrictions on which subjects are studied together, giving students time to establish their strengths before specialising," he said.
Oxford University has the lowest rate of attrition, with a dropout rate of just 1.4 per cent. The university also has the lowest proportion of students from lower socioeconomic groups.
Cambridge University is presently reviewing its student record system, so it did not submit data this year.
RETENTION: TOP TEN
Institutions with the lowest dropout rates
Non-continuation following year of entry.
Full-time first-degree entrants 2004-05 Institution Percentage Benchmark Oxford University 1.4 2.7 St Andrews University 2.0 3.7 Warwick University 2.2 3.7 Bristol University 2.7 3.5 Stirling University 2.8 7.9 Durham University 3.1 3.6 Nottingham University 3.2 3.9 York University 3.3 4.0 Sheffield University 3.3 4.7 Exeter University 3.4 5.8
RETENTION: BOTTOM TEN
Institutions with the highest dropout rates
Non-continuation following year of entry.
Full-time first-degree entrants 2004-05 Institution Percentage Benchmark Bell College 25.4 13.8 Paisley University 18.4 13.7 Bolton University 2.2 3.7 Chester University 18.3 9.9 Glamorgan University 18.1 14.8 Napier University 17.4 12.5 Abertay, Dundee 16.0 15.9 North East Wales Institute 15.9 13.4 Swansea Institute 15.8 12.6 London Metropolitan University 15.5 13.8