Dropping out costs. It costs universities vital money and kudos and funding bodies their investment. It is the dropout student, however, who may finish up paying the highest price - and not just by ending up at a disadvantage in the jobs market, where degrees have in effect become the new A levels.
Whatever the reason for student seepage, be it financial, sociological, psychological or academic related, the effect on students is more enduring than is realised, either by the dropouts or by the institutions signing them off as part of their wastage statistics.
Over 30 years ago, I dropped out halfway through my four-year course. In the cinema of my sleep, I still return frequently to complete my degree.
Reading a committee paper recently in academe's Underpaid Wood where I try, by aversion therapy, to exorcise my personal demons, I gleaned a crumb of comfort from the knowledge that I am not alone in having long-lasting regrets about my decision. I found that dropouts spoke of reduced self-confidence, a sense of failure, of being a disappointment to their parents - this often from the first in the family to go to university.
Further comfort was afforded me by a recent Times Higher contributor's curious gem of information, namely that until the late Victorian era, only those aspiring to be Anglican bishops or wardens of Oxbridge colleges bothered to complete their degrees. I now feel less alone and perhaps less of a failure - but the dreams keep on coming, and my salary is as low as my self-esteem, the two inextricably linked.
It is disingenuous for universities to launch expensive marketing campaigns, to boast of cheap beer and to dangle the carrot of a cushy career at the end of it all, when students thus lured may before long find that the packaging outweighs the contents.
It is a world of ever-larger tutorial groups, overstretched "customer"
facilities and spread-thin academic and pastoral counselling. And when the university experience differs little from school, students will defect in ever-increasing numbers. A thought for those "driving up" recruitment to deliver the Government's widening participation target of 50 per cent: are we not in danger of placing too much emphasis on hauling them in while short-changing on the ingredients that are vital to retention? We may in future see far too many students who, like me, slip through the net.
Down the years, I have sleepwalked Brighton's seafront. Awake in a sweat, I worried about essays left unfinished, tutorials missed and, remembering the grim lodgings of my dream, the sink piled high with the remains of a spag bol meal enjoyed with fellow phantom students. Never mind "bums on seats", we're meddling with people's lives here.
Some excellent work on enriching the student experience and putting support and counselling in place is indeed undertaken, often by enthusiastic but overburdened academics. Yet despite quality assurance mechanisms, standards will fall if academics are pressured more and more into taking on collateral duties.
As a by-product, mission statements are formulated, diversity is celebrated and strategies are devised for delivering excellence. But who has the time or the energy to deliver anything like excellence?
The long-term impact of dropping out is little understood. People like me just seem to disappear from view. But we are still here, and our experience of university that should have been the making of us can become the breaking of us. With top-up fees, that will only get worse.
Universities should tread softly, for they tread on our dreams.
Manchester Metropolitan University