Professor Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Brunel University in London and chairman of the Higher Education Statistics Agency, has blamed shortages of pupils taking science A-levels. He says that universities are being forced to recruit weaker candidates.
While 9 out of 10 students taking social sciences, humanities or business studies will successfully complete their courses, the chances of those taking maths, science and engineering are lower.
Some universities have much higher pass rates than others, statistics from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals show. The University of Stirling achieved a 100 per cent pass rate in combined sciences between 1990 and 1992, while at the University of Reading almost half failed or dropped out. At Bangor and Lampeter every student passed a combined social sciences course, while at Ulster only 8 per cent succeeded.
Professor Sterling said: 'Fewer kids in the schools are doing science and mathematics and because there is such pressure to increase science and technology numbers one is tempted to take students with a weaker maths and science ability. Sometimes it's worth doing that in the interests of open access but sometimes it doesn't pay off.'
Universities and schools have argued for a broader exam than A-level, in which students take sciences as well as arts up to 18.