University drop-out rates have hit a three-year high, figures released yesterday show.
They also revealed that the percentage of school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds going on to university is falling, despite the government spending millions to try to improve their participation rates.
Last night, the Universities Secretary, John Denham, angered lecturers' representatives when he claimed the standard of university teaching could be behind the rise in the drop-out rate.
The figures pose an awkward dilemma for ministers who are committed to launching a review of top-up fees which is widely expected to increase the fee ceiling of £3,145 a year.
A survey of university vice-chancellors found that, on average, they would like to see the figure double to £6,500 a year. Sir Martin Harris, the head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), the university admissions watchdog, has indicated it would favour raising the ceiling to £5,000.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that of the school-leavers who started university in 2006-2007, 7.4 per cent dropped out after their first year of study, up from 7.1 per cent in the previous year.
The UHI Millennium Institute, which covers the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, saw 28.2 per cent of students drop out. Second worst was Bolton on 20.7 per cent.
In general, universities that recruited the most students from low-income families had the highest drop-out rates. The percentage of younger people entering higher education from low-income families in 2007-08 was 29.5 per cent, down from 29.8 per cent the previous year. Again, the figure was the lowest for three years.
There was a crumb of comfort for ministers in the fact that participation from disadvantaged neighbourhoods rose from 9.6 per cent to 9.9 per cent. Taking the two trends together would suggest that while there are more students coming from disadvantaged areas, they tend to be from families earning higher incomes.
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Those advocating higher fees or even privatised universities need to think again. The bottom line is that the punitive cost of higher education is putting the very students who the Government wishes to attract off applying."
Wes Streeting, the president of the National Union of Students, said: "The idea that top-up fees could be raised to £5,000 a year without any impact on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds is laughable, particularly given the harsh economic climate."
The figures also show that Britain's more elite institutions, the 20 members of the Russell Group of universities which represents leading research institutions, are in the main failing to meet benchmarks on recruitment of state-school pupils and also those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Only five universities meet their benchmarks for state-school pupils – Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield and Southampton, while Queen's University, Belfast, which recruits 99.7 per cent of its students from state schools, does not have a target. The position on recruiting disadvantaged students is even starker. Only two universities – King's College, London and Queen's – reached their benchmarks.
The universities with the least participation by disadvantaged groups are Oxford (10.5 per cent) and Cambridge (11 per cent). Their benchmarks are 17.4 per cent and 18.4 per cent respectively.
Dr Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group, cited "low aspirations, lack of advice and guidance and, most importantly, under-achievement at school" as reasons for the low recruitment levels.
Mr Denham said that while the percentage of recruits from low-income families was down, the actual number of such students was up, due to the overall rise in student numbers. But he said he was concerned about the "wide variations between the performance of different institutions" in terms of their participation and drop-out rates.
Case study: 'Failing to complete my course has not hindered me'
After his first year at university, Andrew McMenamin dropped out of his course because he felt it "was not for him".
The 23-year-old had tried, and failed, to get on a course at Edinburgh University to train as a primary school teacher.
He took up the offer of a language in education course at Stratchclyde, then transferred to a hotel and hospitality management course after a year, but then gave that up, too. Now he works in a bar.
"If I'd got on the primary education course, I'd probably be doing primary teaching now," he said. "It was what I wanted to do.
"However, I do feel a lot of the time university is forced upon people who don't need to do it.
"If you're doing a course that you really like then you're going to continue with it. Otherwise, it's not really worth it."
His comments will find support from traditionalists like Chris Woodhead, the former chief schools inspector, who believe the Government's aim of recruiting 50 per cent of young people into higher education will lead to a lowering of standards in universities.
Mr McMenamin transferred to hotel and hospitality management because the subject "was something I was interested in – I'd worked in it for my parents' company for five years beforehand".
However, he realised after a year that his heart was not it, and he dropped out to return to live in Edinburgh, where he worked in a pub for several years.
He is now the bar manager of a night club in Edinburgh, the Opal Lounge, and believes he is at least as well paid as he would have been had he stuck to his university course.
Were he to change his mind, there are of course various routes he could pursue to go back to primary teaching as a mature student.
"I'm very happy," he said. "I regret not working harder at school and not getting on the course I wanted but I'm doing well in something that I enjoy. I don't feel the fact that I've not finished university has hindered me."
He also has this to say to friends of his that are still at university: "I know what debt you're going to get into while you're at university."Reuse content