Further education colleges are better than universities at ensuring that part-time degree students do not drop out, according to the Government's public spending watchdog, writes Melanie Newman.
A National Audit Office report, Staying the Course: The Retention of Students in HE , shows that part-timers studying higher education in a further education college are 1.56 times more likely to enter their second year than if they study at a university.
For full-timers, the reverse is true, with students 1.43 times more likely to progress to their second year if they are studying at university.
Angela Hands, co-author of the report, said: "It appears that universities may have something to learn from further education colleges about the way they deal with part-time students."
Retention of part-timers is a particularly serious issue for universities: a study included in the report showed that only 47 per cent of part-time students who started a degree course in 2000-01 had finished studying within six years; 44.5 per cent had left higher education without qualifying in that time.
On a positive note, the report showed that the UK has high overall rates of graduation in comparison with other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ranked at fifth in 2004.
Within the UK, the report highlighted wide variations in retention between universities against benchmarks adjusted for entry qualifications and the subjects students take. Institutions with the lowest absolute and relative continuation rates included Bolton and Chester universities.
Overall, more than a third of 117 institutions studied improved their retention rates between 2001-02 and 2004-05, while 26 per cent saw an increase in dropouts.
Chester University's retention rate fell by 8.4 per cent and Anglia Ruskin's by 3.8 per cent, while Chichester University's rate improved by 6.5 per cent.
Ms Hands said: "If all those universities whose rates dropped had managed to stay the same, an additional 1,250 students would have continued into the second year of study."
Overall, medicine and dentistry undergraduates are most likely to finish their degrees, while those studying for combined degrees and on maths and computer sciences courses are least likely.
To improve retention, Ms Hands suggests that universities need to move away from a "deficit culture" that focuses retention initiatives on students seen as struggling. Student support schemes, such as those providing personal tutoring programmes, should be marketed to all students and opportunities to improve grades should be emphasised, she said.
"Actions that institutions can take to improve retention need not be expensive," she said. Institutions should have a strategy for the whole organisation and that all staff, including academics, can "buy into", Ms Hands said.
Such initiatives will become increasingly important as widening participation brings in more students in need of support.