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University drop-outs are cleverer than you might think

OUR YOUNG people aren't daft. Between 18 and 25 per cent of them fail to finish their university and college courses. They vote with their feet. The figures vary depending on which newspaper you read, but all are based on statistics recently issued by the Higher Education Funding Council which, by discreet management of the money it doles out, controls the numbers, the standards, and the quality of the college education our young people receive.

Its powers are immense. It seems to those at the receiving end, as they bid for students and money in competition with other institutions, both Machiavellian and Kafkaesque. It, and its predecessors - different names, same principle (that is to say Doler Out Of Money - or DOOM) have quietly presided over the extraordinary inflation of higher education in the last 40 years. Then, it was 12.5 per cent of our young; now it is 40 per cent, and is likely to rise to 50 per cent. The HEFC has managed this without any kind of concomitant rise in the money it itself receives. Where once the taxpayer paid for the education of the 12.5 per cent, which it could well afford, now parents of the 40 per cent are expected to contribute, the young to borrow, and the taxpayer to sop up the surplus. Standards have slumped, the young are crowded into over-large, over-administrated and underfunded institutions, and the drop-out rate - though heaven knows how these figures are come by - already costs taxpayers pounds 200m a year.

Those who drop out in the first term are not even counted. They are myriad; they have been hand-held through the complexities of their Ucas forms, got to the university "of their choice" - well, second or third choice, or "Clearing" - then found themselves presented with the free-for-all mayhem of registration week and just got the hell out of there.

The 50 per cent ambition is too great, too high, too soon, too inflated. The expansion of higher education must stop now, while we all have a breather, and contemplate whether education, education, education is all it's cracked up to be.

The trouble with inflation is that it's catching. It applies to grades as well as numbers. The more students the university can squash in, the more funds it attracts - so long as standards are maintained. The funding councils and vice-chancellors will swear that standards haven't dropped, and so far as they can see they haven't. But kindly teachers throughout the system are marking up, inflating grades to what they think the student is capable of, not what the wretched, under-taught creature has really achieved. At the bustling University of the West of England (once Bristol Tech - but that's another story, of the punishing of our older universities for their academic insolence), where in 1985 seminars used to be four hours per term per student per subject and eight to 15 per group (bad enough), they are now down to one 50-minute hour per student per subject per term, 20 to 30 per group, and referred to as "student contact time". ("Seminar" sounds too poncy.) The situation distresses administrators, lecturers and students alike, but what is to be done?

Employ lower-qualified "part-time" lecturers and save money. ("Part-time" is a misnomer; part-time staff often put in more teaching hours than full- time people, but don't get holiday or sick pay.) This gain must be weighed against the extra funding a college gets if highly qualified staff "publish" - never mind the quality, feel the width - but this keeps them out of teaching. Accept students from the three lowest social classes and get a bonus - but be penalised for a higher drop-out rate. The students, at the wrong end of everything, expecting "involvement" and finding only chaos, without books or teaching packs, reduced to spending long hours photo-copying in the library, running up a debt to the state, drown their sorrows in the bar or vote with their feet. Out of there.

Thirty years ago the wealth or background of parents made little difference to a pupil's attainment; the whole education system was devised to pick out the 12.5 per cent "elite", those academically inclined. Now, according to the report, social class means everything. Students from working-class homes are most likely to have low A-level scores and those with lowest A-level scores are most likely to drop out. Of course; it's those post- codes again. If you get low A-level scores you're not likely to get a first or a two-one, which is what employers now demand (their ambitions, too, having been inflated). More failure, more humiliation, more ignominy.

"Young people from wealthy areas are more than 10 times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest neighbourhoods," says Sir Brian Fender, of the HEFC for England. Well, of course. Maybe the socially excluded are just 10 times more realistic than their middle- class compatriots. The wishful, and expensive, thinking of governments is that all children are born academically equal, and that if they don't read by seven and get degrees at 23, it can only be the fault of the teachers, lecturers and institutions, and nothing to do with the nature of the species. The children, simply looking round the classroom, know better, and make proper judgements as to how their lives are going. Just let's get out of here, fast.