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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 12:18 GMT
University drop-out rates exposed
The first official higher education performance tables have shown that 18% of students fail to complete their courses.
And the statistics also show that prestigious universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are still drawing a disproportionate number of students from private schools.
Click here for BBC News Online's tables
Unlike the league tables for schools, the inaugural higher education tables do not measure academic achievement or exam results, but only show figures for social inclusion, drop-out rates and research productivity.
The national average drop-out rate, according to the National Union of Students, means that 144,000 students are leaving without gaining a qualification - at an estimated cost of £500m.
But the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) says that among major industrialised countries only Japan (at 11% ) has a lower non-completion rate than the UK, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Rates are much higher in France (45% ), the United States (37% ) and Germany (28%).
The tables identify institutions with the worst and best drop-out rates, with the University of East London having the highest rate of non-completion - at 36% - and the University of Cambridge the lowest at 1%.
Engineering and technology courses have the highest drop-out rates (19%) with medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses the lowest (3%).
The figures relate to the 1996-97 and 1997-98 academic years, so do not reflect the impact of special funding to support widened participation by young people whose backgrounds would not traditionally have inclined them to go into higher education.
"We are keen to tackle this long-standing aspect of social exclusion, because it is preventing many people of ability from benefiting from higher education.
"Many universities and colleges have taken up this challenge and are opening their doors to able students - who are often mature - from a wide variety of backgrounds.
"We need to recognise that recruiting and retaining such students is a harder job and those students require more support.
"Using these indicators we can now compare institutions with similar student intakes and tell which are more successful in recruiting and retaining disadvantaged students and enabling them to succeed."
"They may have family commitments, they may have financial problems, and therefore I think it almost inevitable that with a broader student access there will be more students that find it difficult to progress."
The government has made a priority of widening access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It wants to raise the proportion of young people going into higher education in the UK to 50%.
"I hope that all universities when they see their own figures will think about ways in which they can address this," she said.
In terms of social inclusion, the performance tables show that many of the most academically successful universities still draw a disproportionately large number of students from independent, fee-paying schools.
Ex-public school pupils
The national average for the proportion of state school pupils entering universities is 82%. While many of the 'new' universities have much higher figures, there are a number of 'old' universities and medical schools which continue to have large numbers of former private school students.
The Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine has the lowest number of state school pupils within its intake (40%) with Oxford (47%) and Cambridge (52%) among the bottom five.
The University of Bristol, University College London, Imperial College London and the London School of Economics are all among the institutions with the lowest number of state school pupils.
At the other end of the scale, among the 'old' universities Queen's University Belfast has the highest proportion of state school students (97%). The highest single score (100%) was achieved by Wimbledon School of Art.
The data published by the funding councils, while avoiding more sensitive subjects such as ranking on academic achievement, have still divided opinion.
Called to account
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has welcomed the performance data as "UK higher education demonstrating that it is world class".
But the Association of University Teachers said the drop-out rate was wastefully high.
Its general secretary, David Triesman, said responsibility for poor performance had to lie somewhere, and he called upon the leaders of institutions to consider their position.
"In industry or business, heads would roll if so many customers voted with their feet," he said. "Those at the top get substantial pay rises as reward for achievement.
"If the vice-chancellors in institutions with high drop-out rates say that this shocking drain on student numbers completing courses is not their fault, then to retain credibility they have to say where culpability lies.
"Speak out or ship out," he said.
Links to other Education stories are at the foot of the page.
Links to more Education stories
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