This summer, the Higher Education Funding Council for England will put an end to the speculation by publishing wastage rates for all its institutions as one of its performance indicators. Individual universities and colleges are already mulling over Hefce's estimates, and some of them are not liking what they are being told.
There is an inescapable logic to what Hefce is doing. If millions in public money are going to support an ever-increasing student population, it is reasonable that the institutions that spend that money should be accountable. But, of all the performance indicators now being imposed on higher education, drop-out or wastage rates are perhaps the most complex and, so, open to the most misinterpretation.
There is, as with all statistics, the problem of comparing like with like. In international comparisons, the UK still comes out well in spite of the rapid rate at which participation has increased over the last two decades. Even if the DfEE figure turns out to be an under-estimate of the current situation, it stands comparison with drop-out rates of 65 per cent in Italy, 50 per cent in Portugal, 45 per cent in Austria and more than 30 per cent in countries as diverse as Turkey, France and the US (OECD figures).
Many of these countries already have a mass higher education system and there are academics here who argue that as we move in the same direction, drop-out rates will inevitably rise. As Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University puts it, the context has changed. As we move to a more inclusive system with more opportunities, many more students who begin courses may find that they can't meet the challenges higher education presents. "I don't think we should feel bad about people dropping out. They should be given good advice at the outset, but it is entirely healthy to let people try out what they are capable of."
There is also a problem of definition: who can be correctly defined as a "drop-out" - a phrase which carries its own derogatory image - and who should be held accountable anyway. Even in the most selective days of the Fifties, when participation was climbing slowly from 5 to 10 per cent of the age-group, some students failed their examinations, left university because of ill-health or simply decided they were on the wrong course. Some drop out and come back later, sometimes so much later they'll have been counted as "drop-outs" in one set of figures, and new entrants in another.
Wider participation and radically different methods of financing study, as both institutions and the National Union of Students point out, mean that family difficulties, particularly for mature students, and financial problems have escalated as reasons for leaving a course before completion. As NUS argues, no one yet knows the effect term-time employment among 40 per cent of students, or introducing tuition fees, are going to have on academic performance, but they seem unlikely to be beneficial. Hefce is promising to put the wastage performance indicator in context and these are some of the factors they will have to take into account.
Lack of context in this particular league table would have predictable results. Students with good A-level grades and excellent parental support, and institutions offering subjects like medicine, which attract the highly motivated, will do well. Those who see their mission as widening participation - and who, therefore, take on students with less impressive qualifications from backgrounds which are not particularly conducive to study - will do less well. Hefce has already acknowledged that some institutions have a more difficult task than others by dedicating a pounds 20m funding premium for institutions trying to widen access, on top of the premium already available for mature students.
Bradford and Ilkley College, for example, has just been allocated pounds 7.1m in the push to equalise funding for higher education courses in further education colleges. The college spans the higher and further education divide, and has a long history of encouraging access. It has done this largely through preliminary courses designed to bring prospective students, most of them adults, up to speed before starting on a degree-level programme.
So does all this let institutions off the hook as far as drop-out rates are concerned? Is this a performance indicator too far? Not quite. There are many people who will rightly jump on suggestions of waste, and it is difficult for institutions to argue that it was worth spending taxpayers' money to give an ex-student the benefit of one year's higher education rather than three, with nothing to show for it at the end. Attempts to gain acceptance for diplomas available after two years' study, and more flexible transfer arrangements between courses and institutions, have not been widely adopted.
It is also hard to persuade the public a drop-out rate in double figures is a disgrace for an elite university taking students with triple-A grades - while one of 30 per cent is acceptable for an inner city college committed to open access. No amount of "context" from Hefce will completely protect institutions with high wastage rates, any more than inner-city schools have succeeded in explaining why it is harder for them to do well than their peers in leafier environments.
In fact, institutions most committed to improving access accept that wastage rates are an acceptable indicator and that there are things they can, and should, be doing to keep failure to a minimum. They have little purchase on student debt or the family difficulties of mature students, but most universities and colleges now have counselling services for students with problems, run either by the Students' Union or the institution itself, or both.
Many also make great efforts to pre-empt academic problems before they arise. Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute of Higher Education, says that he does not want to lose a single student. "Of course dropping out is a function of selectivity. As you widen intake, it is not surprising that levels are rising. We will have to tolerate that.
"But, at the same time, there is a lot which can be done by admitting only students who are capable of benefiting from the course they have chosen, and then by investing in good induction, counselling and tracking.
"It is important to understand what the individual student needs to complete a course, and that may include time out. But we regularly take on students with low A-level grades - and they leave us with good degrees and jobs to go to."
But there are worries that this particular performance indicator could be double-edged. As Alan Smithers warns, if the message goes out from Hefce that institutions should reduce their drop-out rates at all costs or, perhaps, suffer financial penalties, this would place extreme pressure on examiners to pass borderline students. That, rather than qualifications at the intake point, he says, is when standards would be vulnerable.
Lesley Wagner, Vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, takes the argument one stage further. Higher education, he says, is still a self-regulating enterprise dependent on the integrity of its staff. If external pressure through performance indicators becomes too great, then something will have to give.
If that happens the pressure for some sort of a national curriculum in higher education will grow. And that would be the end of the diverse system of higher education, which so far has proved surprisingly successful at expanding quickly and taking in many students who even a decade ago would not have seen themselves on the way to graduate status - at the same time as keeping drop-out rates lower than many other countries.
Perhaps it is not time to panic over student wastage yet.
`I ENDED UP DOING FOUR JOBS'
"I WAS doing an MA in renaissance studies at Warwick University in 1993-94. I loved the course and the learning, especially as it involved six months living and working in Venice," says Jo Booth.
"Through contacts there I was put forward for the Open University scholarship fund to do a PhD at Leicester, which, incredibly, I managed to get. The OU fund gave me pounds 4,700 a year, and after six months of the course I was able to teach at the university, which provided a small sum of money. But the financial struggle was one I simply couldn't cope with. I ended up doing four jobs - in a restaurant, teaching English, as a hospital porter, as well as my teaching. All on top of what was supposed to be a full-time PhD course.
"In the end I simply couldn't balance the pressures of course and money, and I had to give up at the end of the second year.
"It made me really angry because I loved my research, and it had a great future. I wrote letters to my MP and to the university, but I got no response. There just seems to be a complete lack of funding for real research in British universities now."
`IT WAS THE FINAL STRAW: I HAD TO GIVE UP THERE AND THEN'
"I LEFT school with no qualifications and worked for a few years in secretarial jobs.
"In 1992 my son, Aaron, was born. I was a single parent, amid all the political furore over single parents, but was determined to make a positive life for myself, and not `scrounge' off the state," says Carmen Middleditch.
"So I started an access course for a BEd at Waltham Forest College in 1993. I was good with children and saw teaching as a way of making a better future for both of us. It was tough, but I was more than able to cope, and got a 75 per cent pass."
Carmen was immediately offered an unconditional place at Middlesex University in 1994. "Once I started the course, I loved it," she says. "The atmosphere and the challenge were wonderful. But it was apparent from early on that I was going to struggle financially.
"Aaron was nearly three years old. My grant was pounds 6,000 a year. From this I had to pay for all living costs. There was a nursery at the Trent Park campus, but because it was so far away from home, I had to buy a car to go to and from college.
"My grant covered me during term, but I was still not considered eligible for any benefits. I only just coped through the summer before my second year. Things got so bad that I went to the DSS for help. They were no help, though. I was referred to social services for a one-off payment of pounds 20, but was then told that, if I couldn't cope after this, then ultimately Aaron could be taken into care.
"I managed to survive, and was genuinely looking forward to my second year. But things fell apart on the first day. I was at a new campus in Tottenham, but their nursery decided it could now look after Aaron for only three days a week. It was crazy, considering I was doing a full-time course and had no time to get a job to pay for childcare.
"It was the final straw, and I had to give up the course there and then, on the first day back.
"I found out that the people in my position survived by fiddling the system. I guess I was just too honest for my own good.
"Now I'm back doing admin jobs, and it's unlikely I'll ever be able to go back to college. I don't regret trying to go to university; I did get a lot out of it. But it makes me angry when I think of all the obstacles that were in my path - obstacles that I simply couldn't beat."
`I'M NOT SURE WHAT THE COLLEGE WAS TRYING TO ACHIEVE'
"I STARTED on a computer-aided design degree course at Buckinghamshire College, High Wycombe, in 1995. I was never certain what degree I wanted. I went to Buckinghamshire after an interview with the lecturer who was really nice - rejecting six unconditional offers in the process," says Ross Rowe.
"After the first two weeks I realised that I'd made a mistake. The course revolved around engineering, rather than design, and, as I'd done no maths or physics at A-level, I struggled.
"Eight of us were in the same boat. We didn't have relevant qualifications to do that course, so I'm not sure what the college was trying to achieve by taking us on.
"I stuck it out for three years. But looking back, things just weren't right for me there. I didn't really like the town; I was evicted from one house after the landlord failed to pay the mortgage from our rent.
"I was mounting up big debts too. If I'd been on a course I enjoyed it wouldn't have been a problem, but all these problems meant I couldn't stay, and I left last February.
"The debts and the big gap in my CV are a problem now, but I'm glad that I tried."
Interviews By Chris Brown
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