Leading article: We must devise a more flexible university system

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THE CONFUSION at the heart of the Government's higher education policy is exposed by the first official university league tables, published today.

The Prime Minister's determination to expand the number of young people going to college or university is entirely right. Only a decade ago, just 15 per cent of 18-year-olds went to university, a lamentable figure compared with that for other Western countries. Now almost a third of them go on to further study and Mr Blair says this should rise to a half.

Whatever the different experience of students at different universities - and it is time universities admitted that there are differences - the benefits of continuing in education for longer are incalculable, to both society and individuals.

But achieving Mr Blair's aim of bringing more students from poorer backgrounds into higher education looks increasingly problematic. Today's tables reveal that these are the very students who are most likely to drop out. Students from poorer backgrounds also tend to do less well at A-level and, as government advisers point out, there is a correlation between poor A-levels and dropping out at university.

Ministers argue that the drop-out rate in this country, even at its highest, is lower than in most of our competitor nations, but even so it is still a waste of taxpayers' money and a cause of pain to thousands of young people.

So far, universities have done a remarkable job in increasing student numbers without a big increase in drop-out rates, which have risen by only 2 per cent in a decade. Yet the system is under stress. It was designed to push the top 10 per cent of students through college in the shortest possible time. Now it is trying to do the same for three times that number. Whether it can cope with five times the number is doubtful.

Degree courses need to be more flexible. Students entering universities with two Ds at A-level, from families with no tradition of higher education, require more help than traditional students and should be given longer to complete their courses.

Ministers need to do more than wag fingers of disapproval at those universities that have high drop-out rates. Only yesterday the Prime Minister reaffirmed his opposition to a monolithic school system. The next step is to devise a less monolithic university system.