Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Thursday, 4 June 2009 15:59 UK

UK university drop-out rate rises

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The numbers applying to university continue to rise

There has been a rise in the drop-out rate at UK universities, figures show.

Annual performance indicators from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show 7.4% of young undergraduates left after a year in 2007 against 7.1% in 2006.

State school pupils made up 88% of young undergraduates, up from 87.8%, and 9.7% were from low participation neighbourhoods, up from 9%.

The government is asking for funding council advice about the wide variations between institutions.

Statisticians have predicted that increasing numbers will drop out as more people go into higher education from so-called non-traditional backgrounds, who do not have the experience of relatives and wider social networks to draw on.

As a result they are less likely to have a good understanding of what university will be like, and are less well supported if they do run into problems.

This table summarises key indicators around the UK - click an indicator for a longer table detailing every university's performance:

INDICATOR UK Engl. Scot. NI Wales
State school pupils 88.0% 87.4% 86.8% 99.7% 93.4%
Low-participation areas 9.7% 9.9% - 6.7% 9.4%
Drop-out rate 7.4% 7.1% 9.0% 8.8% 8.9%

Scotland had the worst average drop-out rate, of 9%. Only in Northern Ireland did the rate fall year-on-year, from 11% to 8.8%.

In Wales the rate was 8.8% and in England just 7.1%.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said the figures pre-dated the current administration and omitted about a fifth of the higher education courses that are completed at colleges.

"We believe that access to higher education should be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay. We have already taken action to remove the burden of debt faced by many students by abolishing the Graduate Endowment Fee; benefitting up to 50,000 students and graduates."

He added: "Any action to widen participation must be coupled with action to improve retention rates."

For 2008-09, the Scottish Funding Council had distributed £10m focused on students from deprived backgrounds who were at risk of not progressing in higher education.

Personal circumstances

The UHI Millennium Institute had the worst drop-out record by far, with a third (33.1%) of students no longer in higher education after their first year. It illustrates the link with wider access.

UHI delivers courses through a network of partner colleges "in a radically innovative and different way" to most institutions.

In a statement, it said it sought to provide opportunities to as many students as possible from a range of backgrounds, many living at home with personal circumstances affecting their ability to study.

"Many are also studying full time while in full-time employment, or are studying because employment opportunities are not available.

"It is not surprising, therefore, that some may drop out if personal circumstances or employment opportunities change."

The University of Bolton had a failure rate of 18.1%.

At the other end of the table, no-one left the Courtauld Institute of Art and just 0.6% of young Cambridge undergraduates dropped out.

There were also wide variations in the proportions of students from state schools.

These ranged from almost everyone in Northern Ireland's institutions - with its grammar school system - to just over 40% at the English music specialists, the Royal College and the Royal Academy.

Overall the numbers going to university from state schools and low participation neighbourhoods were records - but the proportion of first year students who were from lower socio-economic groups fell slightly, from 29.8% to 29.5%.

Fees review

The Universities Secretary in the Westminster government, John Denham, has asked for Hefce's advice on the differences between different types of institution.

He also said he wanted to know what part the higher education Quality Assurance Agency could play "in creating greater visibility and a better understanding of retention rates and variations between institutions".

Mr Denham angered the University and College Union (UCU) by suggesting poor teaching might be a problem.

"No doubt there will be a number of factors to explain why certain institutions have particularly low retention rates. However, it seems likely that the quality of teaching and the student experience will be important components," he said in his letter to Hefce.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: "I am outraged and astonished that the minister is trying to suggest that the reason for an increase in drop-outs is down to poor teaching.

"His comments are another kick in the teeth for lecturers whose reward for all their extra hard work has been an insulting pay offer of just 0.4% and the news that, as students numbers increase again this year, 100 universities are planning to axe jobs."

Shadow universities secretary David Willetts said: "The proportion of people from poorer backgrounds going to university is actually falling and there are more students not finishing their courses.

"The government has completely failed to tackle these deep seated problems - which require real education reform."

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