A quarter of student nurses across the UK drop out before the end of their course, costing more than £98m a year, it was claimed today.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that 26.3 per cent of student nurses due to finish their programme in 2006 left early.

Of 25,101 students who started either degrees or diplomas, 6,603 dropped out before the end.

The problem is now slightly worse than two years ago when the attrition rate was 24.8 per cent, according to Nursing Standard magazine, which obtained the figures.

It contacted all the universities teaching nursing between 2002 and 2006, excluding those not running pre-registration degree and diploma courses.

Information was collected for students starting courses in 2003 and completing in 2006.

The same information was asked for students beginning four-year degrees in 2002.

The magazine said that while some students may have taken a break from studying, they could equally return to their course after a gap, with those figures probably balancing each other out.

Only the University of Southampton and London South Bank University failed to submit details, it said.

In some universities, the drop out rate was 6 per cent, rising to 56 per cent in others.

In Greater London and the south east, it was 32 per cent, according to the Nursing Standard.

Gill Robertson, student adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Any attrition is a huge drain on resources.

"The money wasted is deplorable and the effect on students and their families is enormous.

"It is time that much more work and investment was in place to reduce this - if it is possible in some universities it is possible in them all."

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said the figures were "shocking".

He said: "This wastage is letting down taxpayers, patients and would-be nurses.

"Either they are recruiting people who aren't suitable for the course or they are putting off keen candidates - either way it is a disgrace.

"Every penny of this money is urgently needed for healing the sick, so it should not be squandered like this."

The Nursing Standard listed the top 10 universities and their drop out rates. They were: University of Liverpool (6 per cent), Bucks New University (9 per cent), Napier University (9 per cent), University of Central Lancashire (9 per cent), University of Huddersfield (13 per cent), University of Glamorgan (14 per cent), Edge Hill University (15 per cent), Glasgow Caledonian University (15 per cent), Northumbria University (16 per cent) and University of Birmingham (20 per cent).

Shadow health minister and former NHS nurse Anne Milton said: "Gordon Brown has spent a huge amount of taxpayers' money on the NHS over the last 11 years yet morale is at rock bottom.

"No wonder nurses are quitting. We need change and we need it now.

"The Government must stop spending hard earned cash on gimmicks and start trusting nurses to do what they do best - nurse.

"Until we put patient outcomes ahead of targets and gimmicks, we'll continue to lose good nursing staff and patients will continue to suffer.

"Conservatives will put a stop to the burgeoning paper work that has forced some fantastic nurses to leave the profession."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The Department is committed to working with SHAs to ensure that attrition is minimised and that where local problems exist, SHAs and universities work together to tackle them.

"The estimated attrition rate for 03/04 was 16 per cent based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

"However, this should be treated with caution as the students counted had not yet finished their course and there were potential misreporting problems. The Department is considering how best to gather data in this area.

"In any case, we're working to tackle attrition. The current system means that if a student nurse drops out of training, then the funding for that place ceases.

"Universities therefore have a tangible incentive to keep students in their courses or they lose funding. The Department has also produced good practice guidance for SHAs."